5 Steps to Redesigning Your Magazine

You’ve decided to embark on a redesign of your association’s magazine. Great!

You’ve made the right decision. Seriously, if you were even thinking about doing it, it was probably high time you updated your magazine’s look. Whether you’re tossing the whole thing out and rethinking everything from the front cover to the back, or the magazine just needs a little brush-up to stay current, the steps to a productive and efficient magazine redesign process remain the same.

When you work with magazine professionals, your publishing team should guide you through the process and frequently check in with association leadership for discussions, reviews and approvals. 

It’s a good idea to let your publisher drive the car — they should know the current editorial, layout and design trends as well as best practices that remain timeless — but you can be their Waze or Apple Maps and help navigate the redesign to keep the process on course and in line with your association’s objectives.

Here are the steps we at m3Magazines employ to ensure we arrive at a beautiful magazine redesign destination every time.

Step 1: Set the Scope

If we stick with our driving analogy, this step is where we set the destination in our GPS app. 

Where are we going? Is it somewhere new and exotic or somewhere more familiar? Are we putting it all on the table, reexamining every element, or are we only looking for those couple of things that need to be updated to keep things fresh? 

Either way, we will follow the same subsequent steps, so taking the time to set our best destination here can avoid a lot of driving around aimlessly later.

Setting the scope means first evaluating the starting point. We do this by studying the publication and asking questions. Flip through it with a critical eye. Imagine yourself as a member of the association who has just received this latest issue in the mail, and ask yourself:  

  • Am I excited by the cover?
  • Am I interested in the feature topics? 
  • Can I easily distinguish the editorial content from the advertising? 
  • Is the content organized in a way that makes sense and ushers me down a familiar path? 

In short, this is the step where you identify your pain points. Let’s use an m3Magazines success story as an example as we go through these steps together. 

Here’s what WomenPolice magazine looked like when the International Association of Women Police (IAWP) asked us to redesign their flagship publication several years ago.

Women Police Magazine Front Page
Women Police Magazine Interior

Their cover image (left) isn’t bad, but then we started asking questions: What are we looking at? Who are these people? 

Based on the cover, we’d have no idea. Nothing pulls the reader in, and the type is boring and illegible. When we opened the magazine, this (right) is what we found. There’s not much creativity here, just typesetting.  

While there were some good elements of the design, we decided to start from a mostly blank slate for a total magazine makeover. For our redesign drive, we set our GPS destination to a totally new and different location.

Step 2: Reorganize for the Reader

Now’s the time to cast our vision. What do we hope the destination will look like when we arrive? What will make your association members — the magazine’s readers — consider the destination comfortable yet refreshing, familiar yet surprising, and keep them interested and engaged by what they find there?

We generally recommend a standard organization of each issue’s content, which follows the pattern of a satisfying meal. (Sorry to mix metaphors, let’s just say we’ve pulled over at a roadside diner for lunch.)

The cover is the appetizer, setting the palate for what’s to come. The front-of-book section is the salad — disparate ingredients mixed together, yet served in an intentional way. After that, you might add in a soup course. This is the heartier regular columns and departments. The entrée is, of course, the feature well. 

Features are the main draws of the magazine, where the reader can dig into fresh takes on fascinating topics. For dessert, ease back out of the features’ depth with more bite-sized bits, and don’t forget something to make them look forward to their next meal — er, issue.

For WomenPolice, m3Magazines’ editor proposed a front-of-book section called “The Notebook,” which would house short news pieces of interest to female police officers. This is followed by our feature well, where we try to open each one with a big, well-designed spread. In the back-of-book, the editor developed the “On the Radar” section, which features association news and housekeeping, such as a map of the association’s regions.

Step 3: Try Some New Things

Now that we know where we’re going and what we want it to look like when we get there, it’s time to start driving. And let’s not feel too beholden to the conventional route. The best redesigns happen when the designer feels free to explore a little; try some off-ramps and see if they lead anywhere interesting.

This is the step in the process where we make a lot of choices: 

  • What fonts are we using regularly? (Pro tip: keep it to two or three font families!)
  • What is the right body copy size so it is both easily readable and uses space economically? 
  • What are the adjectives that dictate the look and feel of the magazine as a whole (e.g., “bold and authoritative” or “comfy and familiar”)? 

Each choice needs to be fully thought through and intentionally resolved. As you do that, you’ll see the complete picture of your destination start to emerge.

WomenPolice Magazine Cover
WomenPolice Magazine Interior

For WomenPolice, we quickly arrived at a look we all liked. The early cover mockup above is remarkably similar to where we ended up. We also soon landed on an innovative way to tie the Notebook section together, with a subtle “perforated” graphic treatment at the top of each page. 

Step 4: Finalize

We’re pulling into town now! Man, this new place is even better than we imagined, right? If you’ve completed the steps above successfully, that’s how you should feel: We’ve examined everything, made our best decisions, and got something new and fresh that we can’t wait to share with our members.

WomenPolice Magazine Cover
WomenPolice Magazine Interior

WomenPolice’s new look debuted in the summer of 2018. It is more professional and visually interesting, inspiring confidence and inviting readers to dive in. It premiered to rave reviews from IAWP staff and readers, as well as publishing industry pros. (m3Magazines won multiple awards for the new version, including a prestigious Ozzie nomination for best Association/Nonprofit Magazine Redesign.) 

Step 5: Keep Evolving

Just because your GPS says you’ve “reached your destination,” it doesn’t mean you’re done! Resist the urge to coast for too long, and constantly evaluate your association’s magazine for what’s working and what isn’t. 

When something needs to be addressed, you don’t need to wait for a big, official process to fix it. Yes, making frequent, major changes can confuse and disorient the reader, so keep that in mind. Just remember, this isn’t a one-time process. You can get several years out of a new design, but never stop looking at your magazine with a critical eye. Even a great design and layout will eventually need some updating. 

In fact, m3Magazines is redesigning WomenPolice again right now.

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