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MAGAZINES PUT ON A NEW FACE INCREASING COMPETITION PUTS HEAT ON TITLES TO PERFORM

By Published on .

This is construction season on the nation's newsstands.

Some of the best-known consumer magazines in the country are undergoing renovation. In recent weeks, Business Week, New York, McCall's and GQ have unveiled redesigns while Woman's Day and Ladies' Home Journal have makeovers in the works. And new Details Editor Joe Dolce is expected to make some changes by April.

"I don't think I've ever seen so many design changes coming so quickly," said Walter Bernard, co-owner with Milton Glaser of design studio WBMG, New York.

Luring more advertisers is always a goal. Further, competition from new media, be it print, cable or online, is driving magazines' desire to set themselves apart from the pack.

"The competition for a reader's attention is greater than it's ever been so there is a greater premium placed on magazines to come up with something new and improved," said Tom Bentkowski, president of the Society of Publication Designers and the art director who oversaw Life's 1993 overhaul.

One of the most dramatic changes is McCall's $5 million makeover, unveiled with the December issue. New owners Gruner & Jahr hope to boost ad pages for the 118-year-old magazine, the longstanding No.7 in ad pages among the Seven Sisters, by reaching a younger audience and increasing newsstand sales. A permanent cover format hasn't been chosen yet, but inside pages have been renovated with more color and photos, additional editorial pages, increased fashion and beauty coverage, and punchier stories.

On Dec. 20, Woman's Day unveils its redesign, promised by Editor in Chief Jane Chesnutt to be cleaner and packed with photos. And top designer Lucy Sisman has quietly started on a redesign for Ladies' Home Journal, expected to be completed by April.

With ex-Redbook Editor Ellen Levine now at Good Housekeeping and ex-McCall's Editor Kate White at Redbook, many industry observers expected to see design changes at those books.

Tradition holds that redesigns are reader driven. But when Life downsized last year, the decision was hatched on the business side, which wanted to save money and boost newsstand availability.

Observed Mr. Bernard, "Very often these days, a redesign is a combination of reaching readers while giving advertisers something to get excited about."

The correlation between redesigns and advertising is open to debate.

Generally, redesigns don't coincide with ad rate increases, and the latest round holds no exceptions. For instance, at New York, ad rates didn't budge in the fourth quarter when the redesign was unveiled and rates are only scheduled to go up about 4% next year-primarily to offset increases in postage and paper.

Said Publisher Amy Churgin: "Basically a redesign keeps the product fresh and attractive. If it's a good redesign, the circulation goes up; and if you have more readers, your advertisers are happy."

While she says newsstands sales are up 20% since the October redesign, the same month showed a 13.7% drop in ad pages compared with a year ago.

And there's always the question of how much change is possible without alienating advertisers and readers.

When Conde Nast Publications tried a cutting edge overhaul of Mademoiselle in 1993, advertisers and readers rebelled. Editor Gabe Dopplet was quickly out and Elizabeth Crow installed to redesign the redesign.

The second time it seemed to click: First half 1994 circulation jumped 15.2% and newsstand sales soared 20.7%, though ad pages have yet to rebound.

"It's almost getting to be like the movie industry," Mr. Bernard said. "If the design doesn't play well, it's pulled after a few issues."

That may be why some titles are taking it slow. When Business Week unveiled its first redesign in 11 years last month, Editor in Chief Steve Shepard downplayed it as a "graphic innovation, not a major redesign."

GQ Editor in Chief Art Cooper also doubts "if most readers will notice" the magazine's new look on newsstands this week.

Regardless of whether changes are simple or sweeping, the magic of computer aided design means none of today's changes are forever.

When New York readers complained about a hard-to-read typeface in one section of the redesigned book, Editor in Chief Kurt Andersen changed to a slightly larger type size within a week.

Design changes will likely become more frequent as competition with other magazines and other media intensifies.

Mr. Cooper boasts five redesigns in 11 years. "A magazine is a living thing, not a museum," he said. "The magazine that doesn't continue to change is going to perish."

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