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?
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.