Journal redesigns seem to be happening more and more often, likely as a result of repeated adjustments to expanding content lists, more diverse content forms, and new strategies. In the past few months, BMJ (now known as “the BMJ”), Chest, and Science have all introduced redesigns. Last year, the JAMA family of journals and a number of other journals also redesigned, and the list only goes on from there.

Why is redesigning such a common practice these days?

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Redesigns in the print world were uncommon and widely spaced. They were also far simpler and often merely cosmetic.

Editors are generally a conservative lot — after all, they are partially in place to conserve the reputation and practices of the journal they edit. This inherent conservatism can make redesigns more like acts of futility. At the SSP Annual Meeting, John Inglis of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, related a poignant and humorous story from his days at the Lancet, when a group of editors and business people agonized over a redesign of the print product, spending many long months before realizing that the status quo was indeed perfection itself.

Not all redesign initiatives end in new designs.

Today, redesigns cut more quickly to the marrow of organizations because what was “print” has become “media,” and that brings a whole new set of challenges and opportunities to the table. Redesign projects have to encompass things like brand on an international level, social media presence, usability, technological capabilities, mobile, tablet, and feature sets. Editorial and product wish lists across all media come into play, and growth strategies are often expressed through the design. In addition, a redesign is no longer a cosmetic change to a single finished good or product on a “go forward” basis — a redesign is a sweeping conversion of thousands of assets in a dozen or more channels, including presentations of archival materials.

One frequent design challenge for both print and online is to make multimedia content more apparent to online users. The Chest redesign is notable in this regard, as the editorial explaining it carefully demonstrates how to access video, audio, and data options around articles. It reads like an instruction manual, which is not a criticism. Change has to be handled carefully, and most journals (and organizations in general) under-communicate changes and benefits to their customers. On the strategic front, the Chest redesign is geared to providing more online-only content, a strong trend among journals, especially as print advertising continues a slow and steady decline. There is a tectonic transition going on, small earthquakes in the business model. Redesigns are in some ways the seismic spikes, relieving pressure.

The The BMJ redesign was undertaken for a variety of reasons, judging from their introductory editorial, entitled, “The BMJ, the definite article.” Adding a “The” to the name is this brand’s way of signifying its historical flagship while allowing the “BMJ” brand itself to promulgate across the organization’s established and successful product lines, which include educational, clinical, and evidence products. The editorial in The BMJ is particularly good at giving a 30,000-foot view of how complicated redesigns are these days. In one section, the shift to tablets is cited as driving some considerations in the new design. Streamlining online navigation is another reason — i.e., improved usability. Exposing multimedia is once again cited as a reason for redesign, ala Chest. Then there are strategic imperatives seeping through, such as “campaigns” to set The BMJ apart as a voice of advocacy and a “for authors” tab to improve service to authors. And, in a hat tip to history, the editors writing the editorial end by talking about typography.

Actually, typography and the aesthetics that stream from it and surround it form the center of many redesigns, for obvious reasons. Journals differentiate themselves a fair amount by creating high-quality finished goods through editing and design — whether in print or online. In the case of Science, the redesign proved to be a much-needed update, moving the magazine into a more modern and straightforward aesthetic. When I received the first print issue using the new design, I was impressed by the clean new look. The title font, which was starting to look more like 1980s desktop than 2014 media, was replaced with a no-nonsense, classical font. Starting with this and continuing throughout, the magazine crackled with a newfound energy, one in tune with more modern sensibilities, at least from my perspective. And as if to underscore how complex redesigns are now in the multimedia world, the editorial introducing the new design noted that the full roll-out would take a little longer:

Science’s home page and News section online reflect only a “facelift” for now. We will be launching a new Web site for Science in the near future, with functionality that will not only augment your awareness and exploration of what Science has to offer daily and weekly, but will also, hopefully, elevate your exposure to the sciences overall.

Science is not the only redesigned journal requiring more time to complete its implementation. According to a blog at The BMJ, the technical complexity of their redesign required a lot of last-minute and ongoing work:

The big switchover was preceded by a last minute migration of the last few rapid response “likes.” These launched in November 2011, and since then we have amassed almost one million of them. As we were checking these we realised that some rapid responses were not showing either. All sites launch with some technical glitches, and these two are being worked on as I write. . . . Our videos now sit on a new platform, and we need to embed files in the article to which they refer manually. Because so many articles now have a related video, we have had to prioritise which ones get migrated when, based on their popularity and/or recency.

Online design and print design often have disparate goals, underscoring the complexity of modern journal redesigns. Drawing from my own admittedly dated experience with a major redesign, improved typography was a major focus of the print redesign the New England Journal of Medicine undertook more than a decade ago. The main issue we were trying to address was reading speed — the prior design had used a book font (Galliard), which had wide letterforms and flowing serifs, which managed to slow readers down. Moving to a narrower font with a more generous x-height improved reading speeds while creating a more modern design sensibility, at once classic but cleaner and more of the times. The online redesign had different goals, more around customer flows and convenience, data gathering, and online measurement. The online version ended up with a very different look in many ways, and some elements associated with online are simply irrelevant to print.

The increased pace of overhauls and design modifications seems to be driven by the endless revision process associated with online publication. From mobile-optimized sites and responsive design to tablets and new media initiatives and now data initiatives, designing the online product is like running a home makeover show. There’s just no end to it.

Journal designs have many more channels now, but also more levels, especially online. There is the visual design level, the system design level, and the design of the artifacts users will keep (i.e., PDFs, PowerPoint slides, image downloads). Carrying these levels over into print has proven tricky and frustrating, as readers generally don’t travel from print to online, even if icons, callouts, and highlight pages exhort them to do so.

The macro message for publishers with print legacy businesses is that print is becoming less and less important. This is hard to take, but user data and commercial trends don’t lie. More redesigns seem to be reorienting print for its sunset years, emphasizing the value being built into online journals, and recrafting systems and practices for a purely online future.

We’ve been redesigning our flagship journal incrementally for the past three years, changing page layouts, online layouts, and cover designs gradually as new directions emerge and trends become clear. I think this is a common path these days — tweaking as a form of feeling your way forward, until a point of consolidated effort is reached. For us, this has worked well for print, while new product launches and technology changes otherwise have kept the online version’s design current. Design modifications are, for most journals, now a part of the game. New icons, new features, and new approaches to online-only content keep the print and online designs churning at some low level all the time now.

Redesigns are to me an opportunity for strategic reconnection — a chance to ask some of the deeper questions that merely executing current designs glosses over. But because redesigns involve more disciplines, more channels, more layers, and more strategic options, redesigns are more complicated and costly than ever before, and taking the time to strategize requires more discipline. In addition, redesigns are more likely now to occur in stages, probably never completely stop, and require more time and attention from more parts of the organization than in the past. To all those who once thought online would be easy and less complicated, I have news for you. It’s not.

My list of “73 Things Publishers Do (2013 Edition)” did not include “Design and redesign” anywhere in the list. At some point in the next few months, I will be updating this list further, adding this important, expensive, difficult, and increasingly common activity to the list.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


21 Thoughts on "The Journal Redesign — More Complicated, More Costly, and More Strategic Than Ever"

“The The BMJ redesign …”#


“Science’s home page and News section online reflect only a “facelift” for now. We will be launching a new Web site for Science in the near future.”

Uh-oh. That sounds suspiciously like code for “We’re going to move everything around and break all the old links that point into our site.” I hope I’m wrong, but history does not give reason to be optimistic.

Launching a new web site is a tricky business, but to “break all the old links that point into our site” is not the goal, and technology vendors and publishers alike take all sorts of pains to make sure this doesn’t happen. It’s less likely during a redesign (when DNS entries and URL structures aren’t going to change) than during a platform migration (from Vendor A to Vendor B). Even then, DOIs, URL conversion approaches, and other careful management approaches make it all pretty seamless.

But you underscore a main point of this post — redesigns and web management overall are much more complicated and intricate than print ever was. So, no wonder it’s not any cheaper.

Of course no-one sets out to break old URLs when they rework their web-site. Still, it’s astonishing how often it happens, and how catastrophic the results are. Many thousands of Wikipedia pages about music albums, for example, have links to their Rolling Stone reviews. The magazine reworked its website some years ago and broke every link. Even today, it’s about a 50-50 chance whether a given Wikipedia link into RS will work or not, and it looks like a lot of pages have simply had their RS links removed rather than replumbed: I guess the Wikipedians who did this figured that the site had proved it couldn’t be trusted.

So what I am saying here is: I hope the people doing Science’s “new Web site” are smarter than the ones who did Rolling Stone.

It’s an issue that even predates the online journal–papers have long given author contact information only to have that information quickly become obsolete when the author takes a job elsewhere. But it’s a great argument for why we need to keep driving the use of persistent identifiers like DOI’s and ORCID ID’s rather than relying on links to web pages or someone’s current email address.

Some perspective, people. Of course things will go wrong when you try something new. Of course no one intends to screw up good things when you try new things. If everybody were to be as conservative as Mike asks, we wouldn’t have OA publishing today. Innovation comes with a price. The question is who pays.

With respect, Joe, this is nonsense. Breaking existing URLs isn’t the inevitable price of progress, its the cost of doing your job wrong. This solution isn’t to abandon progress, but to do your job right.

Maybe I am missing something but generally you can redirect the old URLs to the appropriate URL at the server level. For example using .htaccess with Apache servers. We had to do this when Co-Action Publishing took over our journal and they were using a different journal management system. Obviously not ideal but it does seem to work ok for basic web pages. While it may be difficult, maintaining links should be a very high priority for publishers.

“Maybe I am missing something but generally you can redirect the old URLs to the appropriate URL at the server level.”

You can, and you absolutely should.

The problem is, people so often don’t. Even, as I mentioned above, well-established, media-savvy properties like Rolling Stone seem to break all their links with impunity. It’s baffling, but there it is.

“For example using .htaccess with Apache servers. We had to do this when Co-Action Publishing took over our journal and they were using a different journal management system. Obviously not ideal but it does seem to work ok for basic web pages.”

Yes. Apache2 also has much more powerful and general URL-rewriting rules that can be used to accomodate any sane old-to-new mapping, so there is really much excuse for not doing this.

“While it may be difficult, maintaining links should be a very high priority for publishers.”

What could be higher priority than making sure the content they’ve published remains accessible?

All seems a bit pointless to me. Don’t most users arrive via discovery systems or Google Scholar and just want the article?

On the print side (and print is still an appreciable business for many journals), a redesign can spruce up a brand and improve the reading experience. Case in point is the Science redesign. Its print issues are now more readable and have a more modern and useful feel than before. It was an excellent print redesign.

If you’re using Google or another discovery service, chance are you’re looking for a specific article in a specific journal, and that journal has a reputation that is to some degree based on its design and image. Brand has a lot to do with how authors think about journals, how readers value journals, and how the two form a community around a journal.

More than that, online design now has a lot to do with systems design. You have to carefully design your online journal to be discoverable. Google has a lot of rules and guidelines you have to follow, for instance. Beyond this, if your content is discovered by a user wielding a tablet or smartphone and you haven’t employed responsive design or a mobile-optimized site, what they discover will be less appealing and usable. “Wanting the article” is a surprisingly varied experience, as well — do they just want the abstract, the supplemental data, the multimedia elements, the PDF, the PPT slides, the charts, or the tabular data? Or some set of 3 from the list above? Designing to support varied use-cases is complex, especially as technology changes. And, come to think of it, “discovery systems” also continue to change, with social media integration being more critical now than it was a few years ago.

Readers are not the only “customers” for a journal, and a re-design can improve things for others in the chain, including librarians, advertisers, and authors.

You are not incorrect; however, many redesigns are focusing on the article abstract pages. Publishers review usage stats all the time so we know where the best bang for the buck is when it comes to eyeballs on the page. Also, the author services pages are important for communicating information. Gone are the days where these pages can be buried somewhere with a link pointing to a PDF.

But there is another consideration as well. The Web site doesn’t only function to serve readers. That’s the dissemination aspect, and it’s only part of what a site is for. It is also used to attract authors, who will find their way to a site through means other than search engines. This raises the question of branding in a design.

Kent, your comments about CHEST’s editorial about the redesign are spot-on. Thank you for the mentions. The journal redesign was a component of an overall organizational rebranding effort to capitalize on the respect and recognition of our flagship, CHEST. We grasped that opportunity to do more than simply redesign the publication in concert with the new branding guidelines, using it to make additional design tweaks and roll out additional features and changes in content and structure. I echo your statement that organizations and journals often under-communicate changes. Our audience of clinical medical professionals is often highly pressed for time and we have found that we have to over-communicate to ensure messages are received, seen, and processed. It’s a balancing act, but ultimately all these changes risk being unnoticed and under-utilized if we don’t broadcast the changes as widely as possible. Thank goodness for the interwebs and social (over)sharing.

Thanks, Steve. Also, kudos on the new CHEST logo. I forgot to compliment you on that. Simple, bright, and memorable.

I believe redesigns are actually an interesting opportunity for publishers to innovate. We have found two primary benefits in our work with some of the major publishers: (a) production cost/time; (b) online usability.

Firstly, making a few small tweaks to the PDF format, such as endnotes instead of footnotes, allows for much greater automation. In the case of ACS they are now able to entirely automate typesetting and layout for 90%+ of their articles. Days turn to minutes while consistency and quality are actually improved.

Secondly, when redesigning for online there are a host of benefits to be made by updating the PDF format. Typography has been mentioned, and screens have their own nuances. Also the layout and placement of content can be tweaked to better suit screens, where scrolling or resolution is a concern. Finally there are a number of PDF-specific features which can be leveraged if they are not being already. These features can also assist data mining and PDF scraping. All of this adds up to happier readers.

In summary while print may be going away for journals, PDF certainly isn’t, so we should focus on the common use case of PDF which appears to be shifting towards screen reference first and printed reading second.

“Why is redesigning such a common practice these days?”

Oh, that’s an easy one. It’s because web design companies have very highly skilled sales people, and journal editors are not usually spending their own money on the redesigns.

It’s also worth noting that web design styles seem to change at a much faster pace than was seen for print. You could have a magazine look timely for decades without much tweaking, but a website that’s 4 or 5 years old starts to look dated.

It’s not that easy. Web designs in general change quickly, as do technologies. In print, if your publication supported reflected light, it worked technically. Online, if you don’t support tablets or responsive design or video or run SEO properly, you’re out of step. Online strategies are also moving quickly. Redesigns reorient journals for the present and future.

You assume editors make the decision to redesign. Usually, it’s a publisher’s call, with an editor’s input or assent. And because it’s a publisher’s call, it’s more about business strategy with some editorial strategy mixed in than otherwise.

My first experience with web design was in 2000 when we (two run-of-the-mill doctors) founded our journal (Medwave, based in Chile). Huge challenge. We had a beautiful layout, wonderful conference coverage (what we did back then), and…were totally clueless in how to update the site. In comes the “content administrator” that empowered us to correct and publish easily. In 2001 we launched the first issue.

In 2008, as managing editor, I decided that a “redesign” was called for. A year later, we launched the new design. That was pre DOI era, so I’m a survivor of many of the issues mentioned above, some of our own doing, some inevitable.

Five years later, at the start of this year, we began working on the third graphic version of our journal, and still haven’t been able to conclude it. Maybe it will be ready to go live in a month or two; maybe it will take more. The task of creating a great experience for users is really daunting. One of the callenges is how we are able to keep our readers on a single web page and do everything they have to do on an article (see references, check author affiliations, send emails, post comments, and so on) without having to transit out to another interface.

Of course setting up a responsive web site is of the essence in this day and age, but also being able to streamline the article interface so that it is uncluttered AND has all of the cutting edge functionalities that we are getting increasingly used to, is also a must.

I very much enjoyed reading your post, Kent, since it made me feel less lonely – others out there are are trying to get their journals to look and respond better.

As to The BMJ switchover…well…some three months ago they posting a very interesting series of interviews to the founders of evidence-based medicine. I saw some, and left some for later viewing. Now, the link is broken. Maybe someone can pass the word…

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