How did we know it was time for a new design? Well, over the last 10 years our membership demographics had changed, complex work responsibilities had reduced the amount of time our members had to read the magazine and an almost entirely new editorial staff was on board. Since many experts would contend that any one of these reasons could necessitate a redesign, with all three issues, it was clearly time to overhaul our magazine.
While thoughts of redesigning our magazine surfaced from time to time, the potential cost had relegated the project to back-burner status. That is, until our design firm volunteered to give us a new look for free. We couldn't turn down this offer, but we couldn't decide immediately what we wanted to do. Internal discussions ran the gamut — from just asking for new icons to scrapping what we had and starting with a clean slate.
When people hear that you have redesigned your publication, they immediately assume you have a new visual appearance. While that is usually the case, it shouldn't be the only element that gets a makeover. Take a close look at your content, too. Are you delivering what your readers want? Have their needs changed over time? The answers to these questions may surprise you. They shocked us.
We editors were supremely confident that we knew what our readers wanted. They wanted Q-and-A stories; they wanted international news and profiles; they wanted interviews. Boy, were we wrong. And we were lucky we didn't just go with our instincts.
Instead, we began the redesign process by surveying our readers (another task that hadn't been done in nearly a decade). We wanted to know what worked, what didn't, what was read and what was skipped. Initially, we had planned a full-blown readership survey that would be mailed to a randomly selected number of members. We developed and refined approximately 40 questions about such things as article formats, length of time spent with the magazine and favorite departments. But when we looked at the budget, those 40 questions became 20, and the mailing became an e-mailing.
Although we would have liked more in-depth information, the survey results confirmed some of our beliefs and also proved there was a lot we didn't know. We had correctly assumed that our members wanted faster ways to move through the magazine. But we were off in our assumption that they wanted more interviews and Q-and-A articles. What they really wanted were more research-based articles, more resources they could explore and shorter articles written by peers rather than so-called experts. Armed with this knowledge, we began to work on the redesign.
Deciding What You Want
Before our design firm would begin working, our editorial team was charged with two tasks: Decide on content and format.
Nearly two months of discussion followed as we tried to determine what elements we would keep, what we needed to add and what needed to be refocused. Although this was a time-consuming project, it was an excellent exercise. As a result of the discussions and the survey feedback, we deleted one department, refocused another to tie in with NAESP's Web site, changed a couple of department titles to more accurately reflect the content and invited our members to write book reviews.
One of the most valuable outcomes of our content discussions was the development of purpose statements for our departments and columns. Now our members know what to expect, and the authors know what and how to write. For example, prior to the redesign, we had a department called "Technology Trends." The only trouble was that we weren't writing about trends. Instead, we were printing literally any article we could get our hands on that dealt with technology. Following our discussions, we renamed the department "Tech Support," with the purpose of providing our members with practical examples of how technology could make their jobs easier. The result? Better articles that our members find more useful.
After we had a good handle on the content, we began to work on the format. For research, we scoured the magazine rack and looked at every magazine we could get hold of — from direct competitors to news magazines to tabloids. We were looking for elements such as cover, photo and sidebar treatments as well as colors, fonts and folios that would help our magazine achieve a distinctive look. While opinions differed among the four people on the editorial staff, we were able to come to a consensus. After meeting for a couple of hours, we agreed on a number of elements and examples we wanted to present to our designers.
Getting It on Paper
About four months into the redesign process, we met with our designers to discuss the magazine’s content and format. Working together, we were able to further refine both the graphic and textural elements that would appear in the "new" magazine.
For the next few months, we critiqued a number of designs. We saw things we liked, things we hated and things we couldn't understand. Our most difficult task was finding an exciting design that incorporated our preferences but that wouldn't overwhelm our somewhat conservative audience. We went back and forth with the designers a number of times before we came up with a design with which everyone felt comfortable.
With the new design, we added photos to the table of contents; reordered the editorial content to provide more full-page, four-color advertising space in the front of the magazine; created a new banner; added cover lines; developed new article templates; and even began using a new font. In addition, we began including brief summaries of the magazine's theme and feature articles to make it faster for our readers to skim through the content.
While we were refining the new look and content of the magazine, we also were busy promoting the redesign. Through the magazine itself, print and electronic newsletters and our Web site, we prepared NAESP members for a new, more inviting publication. Since our launch date was going to be the first issue of the 2002-2003 school year, we wanted our members to watch for it when they returned to school. Our promotional efforts centered on the magazine's enhanced content, its easier-to-navigate format and opportunities for members to share their input on hot topics.
Nearly a year after we began the redesign process, 29,000 NAESP members received the first new Principal magazine with a wrap cover that included the tagline, "What does a new Principal look like? Turn the page to find out." The positive feedback from our members and the redesign awards the magazine has won are proof that the redesign was a needed and welcomed change. Through the entire process, we were focused on developing an exciting magazine that would enhance its position as NAESP's leading membership benefit. We weren't looking for cheese, nor were we throwing fish. We were just trying to get something done that our members would appreciate.
Peter Magnuson is senior editor of Principal magazine, published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). He can be reached by e-mail or at 703-684-3345.
© Greater Washington Society of Association Executives
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