I can remember when a magazine design was good for five to seven years. Some publishers liked to extend that even further. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," was the standard attitude. Not today.
More than ever before, a magazine is a work in progress. If your book looks the same as it did three years ago, it's probably time to consider a new look. If you are editing for a high tech or youthful audience, two years is the norm. The mantra has become, "If it ain't broke, improve it anyway."
We live in an age of tremendous change, and many readers lose interest in a publication that looks as though it is standing still. There are other reasons for considering a redesign as well. In the past three years, have you noticed any of the following?
1. Has your editorial message changed? A magazine can stumble if there is a lack of focus and the old editorial game plan is just that: Old.
2. Has your audience changed? If so, bring current and future readers into the plan. Remember, many young members of your audience today are visual learners. Measure your editorial/visual ratio, for instance. How much of each editorial page is devoted to text? How much to visuals?
3. Has your staff changed? This may be an opportunity to take advantage of incoming talent for new design ideas.
4. Have your production or distribution methods changed? If you are changing from Quark to InDesign, for instance, you might as well take a fresh look at the design as you go about the task of creating new templates. If you are going to newsstand or display racks, likewise, you will need to rethink your cover design.
5. Have reader attitudes changed? If readership starts to slip, do a survey. Find out why readers are dropping and if there are things that can be done in a redesign to keep everyone in their seats.
6. Have advertiser attitudes changed? If reps come back with complaints from advertisers or with "no thanks" from prospects because you don't look quite cool enough, you've got a problem that is anything but cool.
7. Has your competition changed? A dozing competitor can transform overnight with fresh ideas and a new design, thus competing more aggressively for ad revenue.
Notice that change is part of every question. If you answered "yes" to any of the seven, a redesign may be in your future. Even if you answered "no" and are leading your category, a redesign may be a smart strategy for staying ahead. Leaders are pro-active. They deal with a problem before it becomes one.
A Few More Points to Ponder
Should the new design be implemented piecemeal or all at once? A redesign is best done all at once, with much editorial thunder. I have found that the notion that piecemeal is easier doesn't hold up. Problems abound when you are implementing the old along with the new, not to mention the schizoid effect it can have on readers.
In-house or out? A redesign can be done in-house if you have the talent and the time, but you may not get the best work from an exhausted staff. Teaming with an outside designer can become a collaborative experience. Also, the outsider can see what others are blinded to by familiarity.
How much time will it take? Four to six months, start to finish. For your "premier" issue, allow twice the normal production time for the learning curve of a new design.
What will it cost? Some redesigns may require focus groups (which are expensive). Some call for testing a prototype among advertisers before rolling out the premier issue. Other variables include new media kits, letterhead, business cards, and design changes on the Web site. A lean and mean guesstimate: Take two to three months of your editor's salary plus benefits; add it to your art director's salary plus benefits for the same period, and that is the approximate cost of going from an idea to a totally new look.
John Brady is partner with designer Greg Paul at Brady & Paul Communications, a magazineworks that rethinks and redesigns magazines with offices in Fort Lauderdale, New York City, and Newburyport, Mass. He is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University, and can be reached at Bradybrady@aol.com.