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Behind the Work: How Design Firm OCD Approached the Ad Age Rebrand

By Published on .

Ad Age brand workshop at the OCD office.
Ad Age brand workshop at the OCD office. Credit: Courtesy of OCD

The brief we received was to "Position Ad Age as the thought leader for those who depend on knowing what's next." The first thing Associate Publisher Heidi Waldusky said when she reached out with the RFP was that they were rethinking everything – "how we look, feel and act." In short, Ad Age was all-in on this redesign. At one point, Publisher Josh Golden seriously considered chartering a boat to Cape Cod to keep the Crain family up-to-date on the team's progress. (FedEx proved more efficient.)

The pitch meeting fell on Valentine's Day. There were at least twenty people in the room. We mostly talked about Beyoncé and brand strategy. (She had just masterfully seized control of every American media platform with her first pregnancy photos.) We also made a calculation that had to be corrected. They didn't have five designers. They only had two : Erik Spooner and Jennifer Chiu. Ultimately they'd hire a third, Tam Nguyen.

On February 24, we were awarded the job. We went to work immediately by canvassing industry vets about the magazine. Early interviews let us know that 1) No one feels like they know what's happening in the advertising industry and 2) there's a real industrywide soft spot for Ad Age. That soft spot helped, because in the coming months, the Ad Age business, operations, editorial and visual strategy were simultaneously reinvented. We each kept swapping the lead until finally crossing the finish line together.

In April, we went to the Crain archives in Detroit. White gloves were required. The brand was crystallizing around an idea of "required reading for business badasses." Lead designer Michael McCaughley and I discovered that this was the same tact they took in the 1930's with an "Important to Important People" campaign. The team at Ad Age ran with it. Indeed, so much has been made about this being a "digital redesign," but we are using an 87-year-old tagline. This was all about restoring brand value.

During exploration, we presented four entirely different approaches: a clean-up of the existing system, a return to newspaper, an emphasis on curation and an emphasis on style. The Ad Age team was fun to present to. Every voice in the room was valued. No one was too cool to get excited. In the end, an emphasis on curation won the day. It best aligned with the emerging editorial voice. The "g" worked like a virtual paperclip. It offered a little metaphor, a little craft, a little equity and a lot of flexibility.

The system had to be a workhorse. Advertising moves fast. The news moves faster. And, with just two (now three), full-time designers on staff, Ad Age needed a rinse-and-repeat system that looked fresh every time. The bands of color were our solve: When they need a design element, they have all of the stripes. When they need the design to get out of the way, they deploy fewer stripes. And the bold colors can compete for eyeballs on the newsstand, in your office mail or in your social feed.

The seventeen-color palette brought variability. (Everyone took a blood oath to never color code.) And, for efficiency, it was important to simplify the typographic tool kit. This is where we leaned on Ad Age's newspaper heritage. The strategy was to keep it simple. Three typefaces and a commitment to easy-reading columns on all platforms, that's it. Retina for headlines, Exchange for body copy and Outsiders for bylines and small details.

This was that rare kind of project where we floated the idea to hire Tobias Frere-Jones to finalize the masthead lettering and got full approval within an hour via an email signed, "Let's rock it out."

During those early interviews CEO of DDB North America Wendy Clark said, "When our publication is its most vibrant; our industry is also its most vibrant." The team at Ad Age is ready to go all-in on the industry. Drawing on bottomless enthusiasm and 87 years of data and deep-thinking, no one is in a better position to figure out what's going on with advertising now. The stakes are so high.

Jennifer Kinon, co-founding partner of Original Champions of Design, leads OCD's business, design and strategy.

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