The Speed of Redesigning

The New York Times MagazineThis past weekend, The New York Times unveiled a new redesign to its Sunday magazine under the sure hand of my former colleague, magazine art director Arem Duplessis, and the magazine’s new editor Hugo Lindgren. The new look of the magazine is heavily influenced by “newspaper and vintage magazine issues from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s,” what many might call the golden age of publication design. I think it says something about the state of publishing today when even a magazine that is exempt from the metrics of newsstand sales (The Sunday magazine is distributed as an insert to the paper and is thusly not subject to newsstand sales numbers) still feels compelled to recall the glories of an earlier age. Nevertheless, the redesign is stunning work.

New Look

In citing the thinking behind this major overhaul, Duplessis argues that it brings “the brand” of the magazine back to its newspaper roots, resulting in a higher impact presentation than what preceded it. The result is sharply realized and visually arresting, injecting an unexpected and welcome sense of urgency into what has often been too comfortably thought of as a sleepy weekend read. My hope is that this also signals a turn towards a new brand of journalism for the magazine. As much as I’ve always been passionate about the newspaper, I’ve always found the writing in the magazine to be a hit or miss affair. With this strident new identity and the new editorial stewardship, that may change.

Fast Company

Sterling graphic design aside, what I find really interesting about this redesign is its timeline. Lindgren began his new post less than five months ago, and yet in that short period he, Duplessis and their staff were able to completely overhaul one of The Times’ most prominent and well-regarded franchises, from top to bottom. As Lindgren writes, “With the exception of the crossword… every page of the magazine has been reimagined.” By contrast, the magazine’s online home hasn’t meaningfully changed in over four years; I know because I worked on it myself back during the last decade. As another point of comparison, last year’s redesign of The Opinion Pages section of required a year of effort and was even incomplete when it launched.

Digital publishing is supposed to be much quicker than print publishing, but this dramatic disparity in timelines suggests that more important than the speed of medium is the nimbleness of the business behind it. The print side of The New York Times takes a lot of good natured ribbing for being slow to publish news, but it’s still very, very good at what it does. Which is to say that few organizations can publish on a weekly basis and still effect the kind of major change that this redesign represents.

In some ways, the digital side of the business is not as nimble as that. To be sure, few companies can execute digital publishing as well as The New York Times — you’d be hard pressed to find another organization operating at comparable scale and breadth that can keep up with the market nearly as well. But partly because the medium is much younger and constantly changing, partly because best practices are less well-defined, and partly because the mission is more diffuse, execution is a more intricate, protracted and, often, inefficient affair on the digital side. In my experience, it took no less than six months to undertake a major overhaul of any part of or to update its apps or other products. And it takes years, apparently, to build something as colossal as a pay wall.

One could interpret this operational disparity in many ways, some favoring the print side (I often heard complaints from my print colleagues while I worked there that the digital side was too cumbersome in its methods) and some favoring the digital side (the sheer technical and economic complexity inherent in The Times’ digital products dwarfs that of virtually any of its print products). I don’t intend to imply a judgment in this commentary, though, only to point out what it says about the deep challenges that The Times continues to face. It’s pretty clear that being able to substantially redesign a major product like the Sunday Magazine within five months is a desirable rate. When the time comes that the company can routinely replicate that speed in its digital products, that will be one of the surest indications that the business has truly transformed itself.

  1. I’m so disappointed in your seemingly positive opinion of the redesign—though I do appreciate your helping me to understand its relationship to the “newspaper and vintage magazine issues from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s…”

    I think it just looks old and tired. And worse—uninviting.

    If the magazine is to have a place in the future by engaging a younger audience it needs to be re-thought entirely.

    I’d start by considering its true value (IMHO) of helping its readers to understand how day-to-day events effect the “big picture”.

    Have 2 – 3 comprehensive featured stories, 1 amazing pictorial, and the crossword puzzle.

    Everything else is reference to an online edition.

    Not only would this be visually stunning, but would bridge the path from what was to what is…and will be.

  2. Andy: I actually like your ideas. There’s plenty of room for re-imagining what a magazine can be, especially for a publication that doesn’t rely on newsstand sales. In that regard, I’d agree that this redesign missed an opportunity. Still, for what it is — a redesign that’s faithful to the traditional idea of a magazine — I think it’s quite well done.

  3. I don’t disagree with Andy about the potential opportunities, but that’s not the point of this post I think. My career began in print, and I’ve always had an affinity toward newspaper and magazine design, and I think this is absolutely beautiful. This is a perfect example of sticking to your established brand when it’s time to redesign. Too many companies these days are willing to throw their established visual style out of the window simply because they assume that modern design trends will attract a younger audience. Kudos to the entire team of this success.

  4. Have to agree with Andy’s comment. To clarify I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler if you asked me to but still this could have been so much better.

    The current design could have been a one-off nostalgia edition. Something that connects, as Andy says, to the online world would be an excellent way to anchor the design. Wasted opportunity.

  5. Like Andy, I appreciate the education on the relationship of the current magazine to earlier eras. Overall I really like it, especially the cover, table of contents and introductory pages.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems like there is an effort to engage the younger audience. Like on p. 17 for example. I enjoyed matching the quotes to their quoters; and they printed tweets. Of course a page of content is no strategy, but it’s a start.

    Some of it does seem tired though. The layout on pp. 26-27 (Broketown, U.S.A.) seems lifted directly from 1975.

    That said, the redesign has renewed my interest in taking the time to read the content. In a few months I’ll know if it’s shiny new object syndrome or a legitimate response to a successful effort.

  6. Redesigning a prominent specialty magazine like this is no easy task, and I’m still letting it soak in a bit, but I’m inclined to disagree on a few points. While the previous design may have meandered a bit from time to time, at it’s best moments it felt fresh to have something that wasn’t in lock-step with the newspaper design and was free to explore more contemporary aesthetics. There are cases where it might be better to be evocative of the newspaper rather than directly borrowing from it. (Typography is a good case in point. All caps Cheltenham strikes me as a little awkward at some of the very large sizes it’s being used at here. That may just be my own personal sensibilities, but perhaps a different face was really in order.)

  7. To me it just feels old. 50 years ago they were not able to place text above images, only photoshop in the eighties could do it. That’s why old magazines have the cropped photo. The most beautiful thing about previous design was the big outstanding images. Now it looks so OLD, so yesterday. It’s 2011, I would expect better. And even if they wanted to follow the retrosexual-vinatage-madmen-ish trend, well, they should have studied better and improve it, not just copied.

  8. As the print vs. digital speed to market question goes, I’m sure some of that disparity is attributable to The Times uniquely, but some is, of course, inherent to the “native” publishing tools and processes. However: that *was* a fast redesign/reworking of the mag.

    And that’s really what I want to comment on: the redesign. I think that there is a lot about it that is great. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that reference to historical designs is indicative of something lacking in the contemporary version.

    I do think, for certain, that this is — as they say — a work in progress. As much as I like many (most!) of the moments, both visual and editorial, throughout the book, it has some definite flow/fragmentation issues to overcome.

    I love the black opener pages. Yes, they are very retro-feeling, but in a great way. Thing is, though, they feel really disconnected from the subsequent pages. There are some story adjacencies that would really benefit from more definitive shifts in scale/pattern. Plus, if they keep digging into the work of that reference era, there’s a whole bag of tricks to help with these things…

    I think the mag is in a good place, but Rem and Hugo and crew just have to keep working it — as I am confident they will. Big redesigns, especially under new editorship and tight timelines, are hairy things. I like where this one can go.

    I’m fond of the cover, as well: the flush-left logotype and the inset photo in the white page. When I first saw it, I thought, hmmm, kind of looks Webby… The TOC is very nice looking, and the story mix is off in a good direction.

    All that big Chelt is gonna take some getting used to — and I don’t love the large, all-caps settings.

    I’m eager to see how this thing evolves over the coming issues. That’s where the full story of this reworking will be told. Also: it’s very easy to sit here and lob comments — it’s another thing entirely to put this kind of thing into action while simultaneously making a weekly magazine.

    I guess I can’t help but contrast this to the launch of the reworked Newsweek. While it is certainly a big improvement over the most recent incarnation (every aspect of it), it mostly looks like it’s just going through the motions of being a magazine. Haven’t spent enough time with it to say much more than that, tho…

  9. a magazine that is exempt from the metrics of newsstand sales

    I think it says something that such an exempt magazine would add more cover-lines in a redesign.

    All that big Chelt is gonna take some getting used to…

    Ian, are you referring to the display serif? My hunch is that it’s a new custom Compressed version of Nyte by Dino dos Santos, which was commissioned for their previous refresh.

    One final quibble: I keep seeing that Tom Waits page shown as a single. It certainly is one of the best designed pages in the mag, but the unseen LHP is not an ad.

  10. @Khoi:
    I don’t really think it’s about “the golden age of publishing”. Technology does something nasty to people: it kinda limits imagination and, once in a while, you have to take a break in order to get some inspiration. Try to compare our times with the 60’s. People were fascinated with TV, not Facebook. Prime time was in the evening, not all day long. The assimilated information volume wasn’t that huge, you had time to think, to imagine, to look at the trees, read books. Now, look at us in 2011, clicking tons of links each day. The bestread is Facebook streams. It gets us tired faster.
    Then look at the context: after a couple of years of financial crisis, poverty increasing, less junk was read (just look at all the magazines and newspapers closed; there were actually too many publishing the same news, mostly in the same manner and style), focus was moved on economy and finance (i.e.: financial websites traffic growth). People need optimism, so what better way to make them more positive than reminding them “the ages of glory”? 60’s and 70’s were the flower power years, the positive ones. Look around at, well, all 2011 designs, no matter the industry. Fashion, magazines, web design, etc. turned to “vintage”, to orange, brown, blue and lots of other cheerful colors. After all, design is communication and communication is manipulation. Manipulate to sell, in this case, of course. Does it work? Pretty much, yes: “We did it once, we can do it again.” It’s what people need: optimism, turning back to the basics, living your life.
    We actually do need a new “flower power make love not war” era. So it’s normal what you see. And media is exactly that: giving people what they need. Media doesn’t educate, it sells. That’s all. Just like any other business. I hear about “journalism innovation”. Sales innovation, maybe.
    I’m not saying it’s not normal, it is. But it’s just as normal for people to get bored of the same things or to just drop their habits because, once in a while, it’s time to move on to a next stage, to reinvent. What you see now is a “history repeats” step. It will probably come a new wave of hippie. Or not. But some things have to change and it happens this is just the right time.
    It’s a natural order, just like ice ages, but faster. Economical boom > calm > boom > calm, etc. Simple as that. But we’re tired and instead of making something new (design, for instance), we adapt what we know or had, repackage it and move on. Which is great, because this lack of inspiration allows us to chill for a while, to rest, so one day soon we can start the next boom.
    That’s what I think. Sorry if you don’t agree.

  11. I’ve been a subscriber to the dead tree edition for several years—I’m a print junkie. And I find the redesign everything good typography ought to be.

    It’s engaging, friendly, and inviting. It draws attention not to the design itself but to the content. It encourages readers to snuggle down with the magazine for an hour or so. And that’s exactly what I did.

  12. As an outsider, I can’t comment much on the speed issue. But it does seem fair to assume that there are probably some remaining inefficiencies in the digital side, and that these will have to be fixed.

    On the redesign, I think it’s visually stunning (though I’ve only seen online screenshots). The contrast in rule weight is probably my favorite element; it adds to the crispness. To me, it doesn’t look tired at all—thought that comes with the two major caveats that I’ve seen very few magazines from the ’50s—’70s and that, as an idealist, I dislike the idea of trends all together.

  13. Digital will never fully replace the printed piece.
    One will never replicate the experience, the touch,
    the lingering over a page, the smell, the rag of the paper,
    the tactile hunger wired in our fingertips ceases to exist
    on the keyboard or the swipe screen.
    The emergence of on-premisesprinting of titles in independent
    book shops is a signal that holding the depth of a book in your
    hand, or simply seeing them stacked about your shelves induces
    a serenity that the digital experience can’t ever achieve. Virtual is
    not, nor will it ever be, actual. Fortunately, people are discovering
    there is room for both.

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