- Launches and redesigns for web sites, magazines and newspapers.
- Cross-media content and branding strategy.
- Typographical, design and art direction consulting for content-based media.
- Editorial/design team building seminars.
- Design staff searches
Design for content
Every magazine, newspaper and web site shares the problem of getting through to readers and users—past all the clutter and noise of their daily lives. For a number of years, working with magazines like Rolling Stone, for newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and web sites like Bloomberg.com, I’ve been developing answers. But, as the media changes, old answers don’t always work. Simply trying harder doesn’t guarantee success. Culture changes, society is more diverse, the Internet has affected communications everywhere.
Media design projects must start at the beginning—with the basic idea behind the publication or web. Why do people come to it? What do they want out of it? What unique content—text, pictures, community interaction—can make the time they spend spent worth their while, and get them to come back?
How does the business proposition connect with this content and this relationship with the audience?
Only when you answer these questions can you start thinking about such things as typefaces and photo styles, and whether to do a radical redesign or start in motion a more gradual evolution.
Media design is not just window-dressing. A redesign is not a “face lift.” Design is the structural link between the customers and the product. Designers are the advocates of the customers during the producers effort to present their offering to them.
Magazines, must be easy to read. Web sites, easy to use. Content must be brought to the surface. And when a design is completed, it should seem natural and obvious. It should look like it is always been this way. Its logic should be clear to the users. Like a language, it should suggest the next stage of development to editors, designers, publishers and producers. This way a good media design can adapt to change.
A quick 36 years
Since 1970, I’ve been involved in the design of the content-based media (as distinguished from entertainment or advertising). I’ve lead redesigns at Newsweek, Esquire and even the Reader’s Digest. Some still bear evidence of that effort. Others have moved on. As Lloyd Ziff once put it, “a design is like the sifting sands of the Sahara.”
For the first 15 years I was a staffer, and had the great fortune to work for the best and smartest people in the business—Jann Wenner, Lou Silverstein, Abe Rosenthal and Rick Smith.
Since going out on my own in 1989, I’ve been hired by a number of brilliant clients—Terry McDonell, John Carroll, and Matt Winkler, among them. I was able to work on early important web sites, like MSNBC.com, Discovery.com, and @Home. I’ve designed newspapers in Houston, Zurich and Singapore, and was present at the launch at Fast Company, Smart Money and Rove.
This experience has provided some stimulating cross-pollination for me. I’ve learned something about what works, and which direction things are going. Right at the moment, it seems to be attracting a number of very interesting assignments, and my work has never been challenging or more fun.
How it works
A consultant sitting next to me on an airplane once said, “If you have a good idea, and put it through a tested process, you can produce a predictably successful result.” Of course this assumes that we start with a good idea, and we may not know that in advance. But, over the years, I’ve tested a process for media design development, and have had considerable success with it—and problems if I diverge.
The process has ﬁve stages, familiar to anyone who has tried to manage change:
- Brief: Goals of the project, business proposition, audience, competitors, schedule and budget
- Design: Two sets of sketches, defining the poles of the design space described in the brief. Revisions and green light.
- Prototype: Every key page (the templates) with real text and pictures. Go/no-go launch decision.
- Implementation: Style guide, training, staff “shadow pages”, dry-runs, leading up to launch
- Assessment: Some 90 days after launch, we meet again to review progress toward the goals of the brief, and to set the future design direction.
One project at a time
In the ’90s my commissions were major contracts, with a dozen, sometimes a score of designers and programmers working for fees in six and seven figures. A business transformation, in part caused by the web sites that we were helping to build, made this kind of consulting seem over-scaled. Now media companies need much of their editorial and programming redesigns in-house—or send them abroad.
Last year, I restructured my practice to adapt to this new era. The first step was to reduce overhead. Coordinated by a core staff in New York, teams are now assembled project-by-project.
Where a client has a tight budget for redesigns and launches, my colleagues at Danilo Black, based in Monterrey, Mexico, can take on the assignment. With 70 professionals, designers, editors, programmers and strategists, the Mexico staff can produce work that I am proud of. We now have field offices in Brazil, Argentina and Denmark.
And the fees are competitive with firms with a fraction of our experience. My role is to make sure we get brief right, and then to “top edit” the project as creative director.
We’ve successfully completed a number of projects this way, including Poz magazine and Poz.com, The Greely (Colorado) Tribune, and the Morganavisen Jyllandspost in Aarhus, Denmark.
Or, you can hire a staff of one! Some clients simply want me—as a strategic design consultant. Their designers can do much of the work. So, I help guide the process, and at key points contribute page design, typography and branding that help gel the team’s thinking. This is how I’ve worked with the Los Angeles Times, and we’ve redesigned one section after another.
An effective way to leverage my experience is the “training” programs I’ve led at the Houston Chronicle and starting this fall at the Rocky Mountain News. These are design and editorial development workshops, that reach deeply into the newsroom and come up with staff-generated ideas that can be surprising and enormously useful to help news organizations cope with a rapidly changing market. (I am going to write a blog detailing this program in the near future.)
Without the overhead of a big firm (at one time in the late ’90s at Circle.com, there were 200 creatives indirectly reporting to me), the day rate fees are reasonable.
For other commissions, I bring in key specialists, assembling a swat team. For this summer’s launch of Bloomberg.com. Theo Fels, now in his own firm, Richardson & Fels, was the chief designer. Fels, was responsible for the early, influential MSNBC.com and the recent Chron.com. Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think, was usability expert on the job.
And David Berlow, my partner at the Font Bureau, is helping us with fonts for the next-generation of online media.
Each client has different needs, and each project is different.