Remake/Remodel: The Hidden Art of the Magazine Redesign [Part 1]

The Residential Specialist

Guest author: Scott Oldham, Creative Director

The recent overhauls of The New York Times Magazine and Consumer Reports, helpfully dissected here and here, provide excellent case studies on both the need for and process of conducting a magazine redesign. All magazines need it from time to time; a magazine that fails to evolve will almost always fail to challenge its readers, too.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in an unusually high volume of redesigns over the past year. In some cases, existing designs had simply outlived their usefulness; others were new projects for GLC and required a break from their prior approaches. I’d like to draw back the curtain on two of my recent experiences: The Residential Specialist (of the Council of Residential Specialists) and Bats (of Bat Conservation International).

As designer Kevin Brainerd points out in his recounting of the Consumer Reports redesign, 75% of the process is “strategy development.” The redesign cannot proceed devoid of context. In both cases, we first undertook lengthy discovery processes, examining the audiences, histories, goals and untapped possibilities of each organization.

In the case of The Residential Specialist, or TRS, we found that the existing magazine had missed two significant opportunities: the establishment of a strong branding voice and thorough exploitation of the vast amount of data available through CRS’ affiliate, the National Association of REALTORS®, and others. The former we tackled with a revised department structure and rationale; the latter would end up being solved typographically.

Throughout this early process, I looked for a “hook”—some kind of visual element that would help brand the magazine and, at the same time, allude to our constituency and the subject matter. I wanted to avoid using the standard five-sided house shape:


I felt confident that the audience didn’t need to see any more house shapes than those forced on them through the daily execution of their duties. And in page layouts, I’ve tried, as much as possible, to eschew images of houses, though it’s sometimes unavoidable.

I finally settled on the window:


It’s a simple, easily scalable feature of every dwelling, and by including the window slats, I felt we could make it clear that our focus would be residential (as opposed to commercial) real estate. Ultimately, it was incorporated into the department treatments, with variations for the front of book, feature well and back of book section:

FOB  feature  BOB

We went through an unusually high number of cover branding treatments, but it wasn’t until we hit on the winning version that we figured out what had taken so long. Here’s a smattering of the designs presented by one of our art directors, Ivette Cortes, and myself:


And this represents only a few of our pitches. While CRS wasn’t necessarily unhappy with what we were producing, it hadn’t fallen in love with anything either. Meanwhile, our Senior Art Director, Rick Cruz, working on a totally different project, had introduced us to the typeface Normande:


Almost in frustration, I used it on one more brand treatment for TRS, never expecting them to choose it. I figured that we’d push things too far and then revisit the process and settle on one of the more conventional approaches. In this iteration, the branding slides up and down the cover, depending upon the content of the cover image:


And as so often happens, they chose it based on the very qualities that had made me doubt its appeal: they wanted a brand that was surprising—even challenging—to their audience. It was music to our team’s ears, and with more help from Ivette and Art Director Gretchen Rund, the interior of the book suddenly fell into place:


It was the introduction of Normande that provided the identifying character I’d been seeking for the data and infographics. With the door open to using that kind of bold, chunky lettering, I dug around and lit upon the typeface Ziggurat for all of our numbers:


It worked at almost any size and provided welcome shots of saturated ink when sprinkled across the layouts.

In part two, we’ll descend into the Bats cave.