Publications & Products
A Labor of Love

An alumni magazine editor reflects on her publication's redesign process

By Kelly Viancourt


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I like to tell people that I gave birth twice last year: first to the redesign of Oberlin College's alumni magazine, then to my son.

In addition to their obvious differences, the experiences share some not-so-obvious similarities. Each required endless struggles and celebrated occasional victories sandwiched between months of prep time and weeks of recovery. Sweet relief at their successful conclusions led to the irrepressible urge to share the results in search of praise. But with a magazine redesign, there are many more weeks of labor.

OAM's Troubled Past

For a long time, Oberlin Alumni Magazine simply didn't reflect the excellence of the Oberlin College environment. A liberal arts college with nearly 3,000 students, Oberlin is acclaimed for its music conservatory and college of arts and sciences and for being a historic leader in the education of women and African Americans. Its students are known for their intellect, passion for social justice, and acceptance of each other's lifestyles.

The magazine design was based on a template that Brady and Paul Communications, a Boston design firm, created in 1990. The magazine did not have its own logo; it used the college's logo. The writing was flat, and photos and illustrations were mediocre. Simply put, the magazine was dated, uninspired, and unimaginative. But its biggest problem was the lack of design continuity. In the mid-1990s, the 48-page, two-color publication went through three designers within just three years; each one had a different approach.

I remember well the day I read a 1986 evaluation of Oberlin's magazine I found in my files. The magazine's alumni advisory committee had asked consultant Elise Hancock, then-editor of Johns Hopkins University Magazine, to review 10 issues of OAM. She began with this disheartening sentence: "Despite some improvements, the Oberlin magazine is deteriorating."

Fifteen years later, Hancock's words are still gut-wrenching. She criticized its "jumbled and pedestrian design," boring feature stories, poor graphics and photography, and dull news section. She offered some straightforward suggestions for improvement: Devote less space to stroking graduates, research articles more thoroughly, invest in a good photographer, and solicit alumni and faculty writers to allow editors more time to polish writing. Timeless advice for any editor, but an intimidating charge for the two-person editorial staff and the laughable art and editorial budget the magazine had at the time. The alumni advisory committee had been concerned about an inadequate budget for years, but they and the magazine's staff were not able to obtain more funds.

Despite honest attempts at improvement, subsequent reviews were not good. "The magazine educates me, but it does not engage, entertain, inspire, or motivate me to donate," wrote one reader in 1996. "If we wish to portray Oberlin as a haven of intellectual vigor, artistic excitement, or scientific achievement, we can't have a poorly written, sloppily illustrated, and drably designed magazine."

Just before I became editor in April 1998, Alan Moran, who recently had been promoted from director to vice president for college relations, decided that the magazine needed a complete editorial and graphic redesign.

A breath of fresh air

Clearly OAM needed rescuing. Moran, aware of the magazine's weaknesses and the budget pressures that contributed to them, wrote a proposal in 1998 to conduct a readership survey and a complete redesign, and he requested an increased budget. Moran and the 12 alumni advisory committee members, mostly editorial and public relations professionals, discussed the plan and the committee gave it its endorsement.

"Some administrators might hesitate at the thought of working with a strong advisory committee, but I found our alumni to be extremely helpful," Moran says. "The wealth of talent in this group was immeasurable."

With the committee's support, Moran made his case to Oberlin President Nancy Dye to secure the needed funding and received her backing.

A New Vision

Later that year, in a presentation at a Folio conference, New York-based designer Mariana Ochs stressed that good magazine design exists in the service of content. "You never want a reader to think, 'what a great layout,' but rather 'what a good story,'" she said. "A redesign that doesn't go hand in hand with tightening, refocusing, or updating the editorial mix is doomed from the start. Begin fresh." We used this philosophy as our guiding principle.

In September, we started what would become a 15-month redesign process with a weekend retreat attended by alumni advisory committee members and several guest speakers.

First we created a policy statement outlining the magazine's purpose and goals, editorial tone, and visual image. We decided that we would subtly shift gears: Alumni would no longer be the focus of every feature, but would serve as expert sources for broader, more stimulating topics: affirmative action, genetic research, the demise of libraries, and God vs. science, to name a few. We also decided that the debut of the new Oberlin Alumni Magazine would coincide with the college's capital campaign kickoff in November 1999.

The First Step

During our retreat, guest speaker Tom Bleezarde, then-editor of the Williams Alumni Review, made a presentation on the first and often most important step in a redesign process — conducting a readership survey. He reviewed the basic stages: Start with a true random sample, carefully design the questionnaire so as not to skew the results, determine sample size, decide what questions to ask and how to ask them, tabulate the answers, and analyze the results.

After the magazine staff and advisory committee's month-long search, we hired A&A Research in Kalispell, Montana, to conduct a telephone survey of our alumni. We worked with the firm to identify a random sample of participants, create the questions, and design the survey instrument.

The results confirmed our predictions that readers preferred articles based on current events, societal issues, and alumni with unique professions. Not surprisingly, they wanted more class notes, first-person memoirs, and academic highlights, and fewer stories devoted to athletics and fund raising.

The survey was less helpful in determining what graphic direction our redesign should take: Eighty percent of the survey's 402 respondents rated the magazine's appearance as good or excellent.

The Search Begins

While compiling the results of the readership survey, we started the search for an art director to create the graphic redesign. I first turned to my colleagues on the college and university editors listserv, asking people to recommend good designers. My query garnered 12 names in less than an hour. Jeff Lott, editor of Swarthmore College Bulletin, responded with a few questions for me to consider: Did I want to look nationally for a designer to implement a new design, or did I want someone local who could continue after the redesign was complete? (Nationally.) How much was Oberlin willing to spend, both up front and on an ongoing basis? (As much as $20,000 up front.)

Lott also passed along some thoughts from Tom Bentkowski, the former design director of Life magazine, who once said that words, images, type, design, and paper are inseparable pieces of a package that readers comprehend as a whole, not a theoretical sum of its parts. That's something to remember when talking with designers, Lott suggested. "You're not looking for a format," he said, "but a total editorial-design unit."

In January 1999, our staff mailed letters of inquiry (essentially requests for proposals) to 15 art directors and design firms, asking for samples of work and bids on the project. Ten responded, with redesign estimates ranging from $9,000 to $70,000. With the help of my one magazine staffer and five coworkers from my division, I pored over portfolios and proposals and narrowed the pool to three finalists: two local firms and one in Washington, dc. Although budget was a consideration, we wanted a designer who would buy into our vision and create a distinct look.

A few weeks later I presented my choices to the advisory committee. Much to my disappointment, the group wasn't dazzled by any of the finalists. The committee only begrudgingly recommended that the dc-based firm continue in the process. Then the committee chair dropped a bomb: "Let's re-open the search."

The notion horrified me. It was already March and the scheduled November launch date was fast approaching. To speed up the process, I asked committee members to study their favorite commercial magazines and locate the designers that reflected the image we had envisioned for OAM during our retreat. The committee chair, a photographer, recommended Connecticut designer Daniel McClain, lauded for his work with The Sciences, Oceans, and Audubon magazines.

McClain's style is elegant and classic, yet contemporary and informed. He values open dialogue with editors and artists and is a pro at demystifying the design process for everyone involved. He respects great photography but vowed that illustration would have a presence in each issue. More important, McClain seemed to "get" Oberlin after just one visit to campus.

We hired him in June for the redesign of the first issue with the understanding that if everyone was satisfied, he would design the three issues that followed. McClain jumped at the opportunity.

The Nitty-Gritty

McClain's initial task was to create a nameplate; for the first time in decades the magazine would have an identity separate from the college. Moran formed a focus group of administrators, alumni, and trustees to rank 16 potential logos. McClain prepared cover treatments for the top four choices that emerged. The magazine staff and the advisory committee made the final decision. We chose the design that we all agreed was simple and elegant, with the word "Oberlin" in a Caslon typeface with a lowercase red, italicized letter "R."

"When I began exploring logo possibilities, I thought of the word Oberlin, and the typographic characters that compose the word, as a community," McClain said. "It seemed quite natural for me to isolate one of the characters to stand out from the community while at the same time supporting it. I tried italicizing each character until I settled on the 'R,' which also resonated with me as 'our.'"

His approach rang true for all of us, especially when we considered the college's admissions motto: "Think one person can change the world? So do we." The "R" was unique, bold, and defiant, much like Oberlin itself.

Throughout the summer McClain was busy redesigning the nuts and bolts of the magazine. He selected two font families — Fairfield and Trade Gothic — that would dominate the book. He labored over prototypes for features and departments, class notes, and the table of contents. He sent boards and electronic mock-ups for approval, working with real copy and art whenever possible.

From the mounds of paper samples that invaded my office, we chose a soft, 70-pound white suede text and a slightly heavier cover, and we boosted the magazine from 48 to 56 pages with color throughout. We renamed departments, revised our campus advertising policy, and revamped our mailing list in order to send the magazine to fewer nongraduates — only those who had attended Oberlin for two years or more. We also made several changes to the content. We added a book review to the alumni books section, for example, and short profiles now pepper the class notes pages, adding variety to the endless columns of copy. We reserved the magazine's last page for an alumni columnist's witty take on motherhood.

In addition, we sought out a new slate of skillful writers who could create the kind of stories we hoped to include in the new OAM. We slowly built a base of freelancers, turning first to our alumni population and then to writers recommended by other editors.

The Inaugural Issue

The feature well for our inaugural issue was critical. Art was also a top priority, and McClain had the connections we lacked. He hired illustrators for two feature stories and worked with existing art for the other three.

The weeks leading up to the November 1999 press deadline are a nightmarish blur. We had long abandoned the hope of launching in time for the campaign kickoff; our new enemy was the local post office, where we had to drop 30,000 labeled magazines by December 31. (Our periodical-class permit requires us to mail four issues a year, of which this was the fourth.)

The advisory committee had seen mock-ups of about 30 percent of the magazine, but time was running out to continue that courtesy. Finally, after an exhausting weekend of proofreading, caption writing, and file transferring, we were done. We shipped to the printer the morning of the last Monday in November.

My husband and I were choosing our Christmas tree one Saturday morning in early December when my cell phone rang. It was Steve, our printing rep, who was working overtime and reviewing final color proofs. "Umm … is all of the body type supposed to be brown?" he cautiously asked. The knot that had left my stomach a week earlier came creeping back. After some trouble-shooting, a designer at the printing company discovered that an incorrect setting in Quark's color preferences file was the culprit. Everything black had been output brown, an error that none of us detected on the color-inaccurate digital proof we had approved the week before.

Things got worse from there. The printer's month-old, eight-color Heidelberg press broke down during our press run and replacement parts were in Germany. The post office misplaced our $8,000 postage check during Oberlin's holiday break, and we couldn't issue a new one because the campus was closed until January 3. Luckily, the check eventually turned up.

Somehow, our problems were resolved, and 300 boxes of freshly printed issues of Oberlin Alumni Magazine made it to the post office on December 31.

The issue was an instant hit. Oberlin's president e-mailed a glowing accolade to me that said, " … I became so engrossed that I read it from cover to cover." Alumni and colleagues sang its praises: "It was a joy to see the wonderful design decisions you made." "Imagine my surprise at receiving a trendy, breezy, interesting alumni magazine!" and "What a great issue …. Great job."

We did have our critics, and justifiably so. Areas with reverse type were illegible to some readers; other readers were distracted by a glut of red accents, a design element that just didn't work. Photo borders were inconsistent, and the double helix illustration representing DNA on the front cover was mistakenly reversed.

But the strongest reproach, the topic that alumni complained about and debated for months, was that red, italicized "R" in our new nameplate. Never could we have predicted such a reaction. As one reader articulated: "Change the letter "R" in the Oberlin logo, and you alter a powerful symbol of uncommonly visionary history and beliefs. The logo is terrible and depressing."

We still use the logo — I'm rather fond of it — but we dropped the red last fall. And we haven't had one complaint since.

About the Author Kelly Viancourt Kelly Viancourt
Kelly Viancourt is editor of Oberlin Alumni Magazine, the quarterly publication of Oberlin College, a private institution of 2,900 students in Ohio.

 

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