PRINT DESIGNER BLACK TAKES HIS SKILLS TO ONLINE MAGAZINES

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Reading text on a computer screen is about as appealing as "voluntary dental surgery," says noted magazine designer Roger Black. He believes he can fix that.

In the process, he hopes to open new media to widespread advertising support.

"This is not just a shot at incremental advertising," Mr. Black said. "It is a whole new medium, and it requires publishers to look at editorial and advertising in a totally different way."

In what has to be considered a ringing endorsement of the new environment, Mr. Black, 46, last month opened Interactive Bureau, a three-person company set up to help publications build online environments. Designer of such print publications as Esquire, Premiere, Newsweek and SmartMoney (he's also redesigning Advertising Age sister magazine Crain's New York Business), Mr. Black is convinced his expertise will translate to the interactive world.

"Most publishers are starting on the ground floor, but it is an enormous opportunity for them," Mr. Black said. "This is not going to be an entertainment-driven medium," he predicted. "I think it will be primarily an information-driven medium."

Within a decade, he said, the online business "could rival the size of the magazine or newspaper industry"-that is, $20 billion or more.

The new venture, based in New York's SoHo district, counts among its staffers Jessica Helfand, former creative director of Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, and David Berlow, president of Boston-based Font Bureau, a typeface designer.

It will function similarly to a production studio, bringing in free-lancers for specific projects, and will complement Mr. Black's existing print design business, Media Design Network.

One of the Interactive Bureau's first goals is to help publishers overcome the technological barriers to going online.

"The biggest hurdles facing the online community today are technical issues: how many bits per second can be sent over existing lines and what is the resolution of that information on the user's screen," Mr. Berlow said.

Going online requires publishers to retool even the most basic things like typefaces, he warned. The typeface that looks beautiful in a magazine could look "washed out" in an electronic format.

The Interactive Bureau hopes to step up the sophistication level of online publications and tap into some of the intrinsic advantages of online operations-the ability to establish two-way communications with subscribers and update information instantaneously.

Too many publications, Mr. Black said, consist solely of text and downloadable photographs. Who's doing it right? He admires Newsweek's new Prodigy product and Wired's HotWired on the Internet.

Said Ms. Helfand, "In interactive media, you'll have to integrate advertising and editorial in ways that have not been done before."

Print media must also learn how to work with video and sound.

"The item that was a pull quote in a magazine article could be a sound bite with the subject's actual voice," Ms. Helfand said. "The relationship between writing and design must be synthesized."

While many media observers predict that profitable online businesses are years away for most publishers, Mr. Black thinks the time frame could be much more compressed with major breakthroughs allowing safe transactions on the Internet.

"That will be a powerful tool for the magazine publishers who are online," said Mr. Black. "It will mean they can offer an instant transaction ability for their advertisers."

In the meantime, online services can offer print media immediate feedback on consumer usage of a site, be it editorial or advertising.

Advertising requires forethought, Mr. Black said. It should be complimentary to the whole design process from the start.

"The trick is going to be to find a way of presenting online advertising information that is unzappable and that people find interesting," he said.

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