The Top 10 Secrets to Designing a Magazine

June 21, 2011 • By

Each avenue in the design world has its own unique challenges and tricks, and magazine design is no different. From style guides and gutters to editors and entry points, designing for a magazine comprises its own set of rules and considerations. Before jumping head first into the text-heavy, deadline-driven world of magazines, take a moment to get your bearings and familiarize yourself with the terrain. Using the road map below, your creativity, and a bit of luck you’ll have everything you need to produce a top-notch, reader-friendly magazine.

1. Style Guides and Templates
In magazine design, consistency is imperative not only to branding but also to creating familiarity between the magazine and its audience. This familiarity breeds trust and loyalty, and ultimately keeps readers coming back for more. One of the biggest misconceptions in design is that templates and style guides are restrictive. On the contrary, they open the door for more creative solutions. Just like in web design, style guides, style sheets, and templates create consistency and allow for global changes without hassle. Instead of regarding style guides and templates as rules, think of them as the framework holding up the design for each page.

2. Audience First
It’s really that simple. The reader profile should inform your approach to the material. Designing something you like is important, but are you the target audience? Ask yourself, “Does this service the reader?”

3. Diligently Seek Out Inspiration
Working within the same style issue after issue can quickly zap the creative energy right out of you, and unfortunately this will most likely show in your work. Something should surprise the reader every time they turn the page, and achieving that is your responsibility. When you’re feeling uninspired — and you will, eventually — go to a newsstand and flip through other publications, stroll through an art gallery, or simply take a walk. Design is all around you so keep your eyes peeled and refresh your creativity. Many designers keep folders or boxes full of inspiration they’ve collected (such as tear sheets from other publications, art work, postcards, photographs, greeting cards, patterns, fabrics, websites, etc.) near their workspace.

4. Cover Planning
Covers can be the most sensitive and time-consuming part of a magazine issue. Each cover is obliged to achieve several goals. It must attract attention while sitting on a newsstand, adhere to print and postal code regulations, be intriguing while still falling into alignment with brand standards, and — most of all— stand up to the scrutiny of the design and editorial team. Brainstorm, plan ahead, and have a backup plan … or three.

Example Magazine Covers

5. Editors Are Your Friends
Magazine staffs often operate with a strict delineation between editorial staff and design staff. However, stronger ideas and solutions emerge when these departments work together early and often. As the designer, familiarize yourself with articles coming down the pipe. You may be able to offer an outside perspective or new approach. Equally, be open to editorial suggestions and help build on them. After all, this is a team project.

6. Typography and Points of Entry
When talking about mass amounts of text, as is the case with most magazine articles, the way in which text is treated and formatted is paramount. As a designer, you have the power to form the way in which the reader is presented with information. With that in mind, text-heavy pages take extra care as you must provide easy points of entry for the reader that lead them through the page. As you see in the example below, a page with no imagery can still be appealing and attention grabbing with the use of grids, headlines, subheads, drop caps and pull quotes. As with many things in design, hierarchy is key.

Example of Magazine Typography

7. No Budget? No Problem.
Budgets are being slashed around the world and publishing is taking its fair share. Fortunately, there are several inexpensive stock-art websites and photo-sharing sites such as flikr.com that can help out in a pinch. If illustration is a better match for the feature at hand, foster good working relationships with a small pool of illustrators. Illustrators are much more willing to negotiate if you’re a regular customer and can provide steady work. And when all else fails, create what you need. Choose a visual theme appropriate to the article and bask in the freedom. This is when design truly proves its value.

8. Design is in the Details
Take the time to check over the details of each page. Finishing touches are the difference between a professional end product and an amateur one. Clean up and double-check the file for rule alignment, overlapping text and image boxes, unresolved text spacing and breaks, and color matching (e.g., make sure that the same black is used throughout the whole issue).

9. Get to Know Your Printer
The physical production of each issue is a topic in and of itself, but there are a couple pitfalls that can be avoided by simply communicating with your printer. One of the biggest oversights when designing the interior of a magazine is failing to account for the spine. Depending on the size of your magazine and how it is bound, any element that crosses the gutter may lose necessary information such as text on a sign or facial features. Your printer can help you determine the amount of overlap necessary. Also, ask the printer for output specifications to assure that the high-resolution files you provide are compatible with its system. This saves everyone time and saves you extra processing costs.

10. The Big Picture
Designing a magazine is just as much about balance and organization as it is about the text and images on each page. From ad placement to the aesthetic of each feature, designing a magazine requires both a close eye to detail and, conversely, a healthy distance for perspective. The best magazine designers consider each article individually, how those articles fit into a particular magazine issue as a whole, and then how that issue fits into the larger publication set. The end result should showcase your cohesiveness, consistency, and creativity.