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Editorial Redesign:
How? Why? Who?


The prototyping process is critical to the success or failure of a redesign. Here are six tips for more effective prototyping that can save you time, money, and headaches.

An updated entry confronts the editors who still have no concern with the financial side of things, and those who bristle at unconventional ad placement as a source of new revenue. Also search the blog for case studies and visuals from seven clients who reinvented in 2011.

What's it like to work with a newspaper or magazine design consultant? Association Media & Publishing interviewed one of my clients to find out: "We needed something that would work for us, a design dictated by content, tat would help us break through the publication clutter on our readers' desks. And that is what Ron delivered."   

HOME PAGE: www.ronreason.com, with links to archival redesign case studies in visuals and text.

One of my predictions of a few years ago has come to fruition, big-time: newspapers moving to a heavily templated design. Clients including Media General's metro and regional papers, as well as Gannett's Cincinnati Enquirer, all have moved successfully in this direction. 
By Ron Reason

Updated January 2014

"You redesign PRINT?" My line of work has always elicited curiosity, but in the last few years, it's been met with concern as well. Everyone knows that times have been challenging for news publications, but the good news is, 2013 was a year of growing work for me, especially with expansion into magazine projects. Among the dozens of new entries on my blog for the year are case studies of clients moving forward with redesigns, format changes, rebranding efforts, and even staff training. Printed publications are evolving, but they aren't going away, nor will the desire, and need, for publishers and editors to redesign, rebrand, rediscover, and reinvent. Here are answers to the most common questions I field about that process:  

1. Why redesign? When is it worth it?
Magazines and newspapers continue to redesign. The most common instigating factors taking us into 2014 include the following:
  • A change of the news hole or major realignment of content and navigation. After several years of downsizing, recent clients have added pages and sections, and redesign has helped convey the message, "we're back, and we have more."
  • Change in format from broadsheet to compact, or from one compact size to another. (I have converted broadsheets to tabloid in San Francisco, Dubai, and elsewhere. In 2012 I advised the Cincinnati Enquirer on its conversion from broadsheet to "three around/super compact" format, launched in spring 2013.) The continued conversion of most American presses to the narrower 44" web has required design changes for both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers. 
  • New ownership and in some cases, emergence from bankruptcy, has brought a desire to totally relaunch and rebrand; this was the case with my engagement with the Chicago Reader, the pioneer of alternative weekly newspapers, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with a major reinvention in April 2011. Such a change required a commitment to "wake up and shake up" the market, create new opportunities for advertisers, and strategically plan for growth and expansion.
  • New competition on the scene that drags a title kicking and screaming into the future, in its print and digital products.
  • Start-up magazines and newspapers. Yes, even in this age I work on new designs for new markets. This is where you want to make a splash in a crowded marketplace, impress potential investors and advertisers, and hit the ground running with an efficient, clean, unique looking product. (Several clients have found success in showing my prototypes for new publications to investors.)   
  • "Tweaks" of effective, longstanding designs to realign for an updated publishing strategy and weed out cobwebs that may have crept in over the years. (My extensive success over many years with the Crain family of trade publications, including Advertising Age and Crain's Chicago Business, is an example of this approach.)
  • In addition, interest has taken off in the following category: the newspaper that moves to a heavily templated design, or newspaper group that creates a consolidated editing/design center which requires consistency across products, but creativity as well. I have done extensive work over the past several years with Media General and, in 2012, Gannett, advising its Louisville Design Studio on the redesign of the chain's Cincinnati Enquirer
    Regardless of what category your publication might fall under, heightened attention must be paid to the role of advertising in the design or redesign process, and in any solution that results. In past years, advertising was an afterthought, if present at all, in a redesign. Today, in my work, it becomes the starting point. Working earlier and better across all departments becomes essential. (Related blog post.)

    2. Should we hire a consultant? Is it possible to create change in-house?
    Some newspapers are able to carry out a redesign in-house. The argument is that they know the history, market, staff and mission of the paper more intimately than an outsider might. On the down side, an in-house team can also bring politics, preconceived notions, a lack of innovation, or historical baggage to the table. Further, they may not have all the skills needed for such a complex project, or quite simply, they lack the time or energy required.  

    My biggest clients in recent years have seriously questioned how they can shake up their market in the most substantial ways. Or, as the executives who hired me at the Creative Loafing chain of alternative weeklies (including the Chicago Reader) put it: "On a scale of change from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most dramatic, we are seeking a 10-plus." Even a talented in-house team may be too invested in the historic, or current, way of doing things to produce the "10-plus" ideas you need. 

    Going in-house is not an entirely cost-free way of doing things. The weeks of salary and benefits for the person taken off-line are real costs; if their prototypes ending up stalling on the tracks, or being junked along the way I've seen both, increasingly, in recent years you may end up "paying" more than if you had hired a focused consultant. 

    A good consultant can provide a quick, cost-effective solution to get your new design up and running, efficiently, and present a new or freshened product to readers and advertisers quickly. A growing trend among papers in larger markets: hiring a qualified consultant on a limited basis, often working rapidly in a workshop setting of three days to a week, closely directing the work of the in-house staff. This keeps costs down, often at a fraction of what a traditional redesign once cost. (Some of this work can also be done from afar, but things can slow down without face to face interactions.) Previously, "project quotes" were the norm; increasingly, daily and hourly rates are logical approaches to design consulting proposals. 

    3. What should we look for in a consultant?
    Forget the artiste. Today you must have someone who understands design aesthetics, but also, clearly must understand content, and deals with the business side in an aggressive way. I sometimes speak with advertising, marketing and circulation managers before even being selected for a job, and then insist on including them in the process from the start of a project - and collaborating with them throughout. No prototypes begin without input from these teams. They play a heavy role in focus groups. New ideas must be taken to advertisers (current, lost, or potential) to gauge impact and interest. The days of redesigns driven only by the newsroom are in the past.

    Make sure to look for a good "fit" when talking to design consultants. This person should be a collaborator, working to develop a look that is just right for your paper, so it is important that this person will really click with your staff (not just the graphics staff but the copy desk, pressroom, marketing department and boardroom). Now more than ever, you may need a diplomat and negotiator as well, to bring down walls and talk across turf. 

    One important consideration: Ask whether your newsroom needs a consultant who is trained and experienced as a journalist, as a designer/art director, or both. (I have a journalism degree from Indiana University-Bloomington, where I serve on the advisory board to the dean, but have taught at one of the nation's top graphic design colleges as well.) Not everyone has all these skills, as well as the "people skills" that may be needed to maneuver quickly within your organization.

    Last but not least, when hiring help from outside, ask for references. Feel free to use the preceding paragraphs to shape the questions you ask them.

    4. What will the right consultant do for us?
    The right person will be versatile and flexible, and will propose a variety of services, which may include but not be limited to the following. These are among services I have performed in recent redesign projects; some projects have incorporated nearly all these services, and others, just one or two:
  • Manage the project: Establish redesign timetable, tasks, mission statement, and project management strategy.
  • Boost your bottom line: Provide innovation in advertising design, placement, rate structures, and procurement ... suggestions for circulation innovation ... consultation and even development of marketing campaigns.
  • Freshen up your look, rethink content: Prototype typography, color and architecture options for a new design, and offer ideas for new features or work with those of your staff.  
  • Facilitation: Presentat design options to managers and staff during on-site visits, and mediation of debate leading to decisions; for startup publications, perhaps preparing pitch materials (Powerpoint, etc) to potential investors or advertisers, or creating other branding or marketing materials related to your launch.
  • Staff development: Assess staff skills and develop custom training sessions, often in collaboration with the newsroom redesign coordinator.
  • Style guide creation: Develop a design style manual, or consultat on the in-house production of the same.
  • Strategic planning: Suggest improvements for newsroom leadership, communications, planning and collaboration relating to design, advertising, marketing and brand development.  
  • Organizational advice: Analyze resource and staff allocation, leading to advice on restructuring, recruiting and/or hiring.
  • Convergence strategy: Brainstorm how a relaunch of print will complement your digital product line, and strengthen your overall brand strategy. 

  • Not every newspaper needs all these services. But review the above list and ask how many of these might be appropriate for your situation. And in considering whether to bring in an outsider, ask yourself, "do we have the time, energy, and expertise to do all this in-house?"

    5. How long should a redesign take?
    Depends on the size of the publication, the abilities of your staff, whether training in the crafts of design or journalism or web integration are part of the project, and other factors - technology, page size, adoption of new content, etc. Regardless, a complete redesign that used to take 9 months to two years, is now being done in one to three months. (Thank goodness!) Taking any more time than this can create a drag on creativity, morale, and innovation. A "design tweak," in a nimble newsroom, might take even less time. Some of my recent clients have made significant progress in just a week. 

    6. How much does a redesign cost, anyway?
    Cost is a big question, to which answers will vary widely (and wildly). Professional fees across the board have become quite reasonable, partly because the process has become quicker and more efficient in recent years. I am happy to provide cost estimates for qualified inquiries if you provide suitable background information on your project (please inquire). I often ask for newspapers and/or PDFs to be sent for my review. Some newspapers also need to license new typefaces, which can entail additional cost starting at several hundred dollars.

    For a peek inside my head and how I approach projects in a collaborative way, see this interview by Association Media & Publishing, regarding one of my recent projects.  

    [If you have questions other than those on this list, feel free to email ron@ronreason.com and I'll try to answer as best as I can. Your question may even be added to the list, or help me clarify one of the answers given above.]

    By Ron Reason, ron@ronreason.com. Not to be republished without permission or recirculated without attribution.

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