Earlier this spring I attended the CASE Editor’s Form to present on magazine cover design. Along with the dine-arounds and peer presentations the magazine exchange is an enlightening experience. It is the one time a year where dozens of alumni magazines are together in one room. Comparisons are inevitable. The good news is the overall quality of publication design has improved since the first Editor’s Forum I attended just three years ago. The bad news is that many are starting to look the same.
Alumni magazines are unique. Unlike consumer or B-to-B magazines that are focused on a topic for a specific audience, alumni magazines represent a place and its culture. The culture is the brand and should inform the visual identity. When developing a design for an alumni magazine, design firms should visually represent the school’s culture and not their own style of publication design. A magazine for a small liberal arts college in the northeast should not look like that of a large public university on the west coast.
With access to millions of images and collections called boards, Pinterest has become the de facto form of research for many designers. While it is important to stay on top of trends, creating mood boards from other design solutions leads to an end result that looks like something that already exists. This is not research. Research is about visiting a place, speaking with members of the community, understanding what is unique and listening to stories. The outcome from the discovery should guide the look and feel, not something that already exists in a portfolio.
It is easier and in many ways more comforting to point to the way a publication has already used type, color, or imagery say “I want something like that.” By pushing beyond the surface and be driven by research and strategy the outcome will be something that speaks to a school’s unique culture. This process is a collaborative one with the school’s key stakeholders ensuring that the culture has been appropriately represented.