Area of Practice is the design consultancy of Kevin Brainard, Cybele Grandjean and Robert Spica. They recently redesigned the venerable consumer advocacy journal Consumer Reports. I recall that my father wouldn’t make a move without consulting this magazine. With so much riding on its institutional history, making the magazine modern was quite a challenge. I asked Brainard to talk about the process and result.
(Project Leads: Kevin Brainard & Cybele Grandjean. Photo Director: Mary Cahill.)
Consumer Reports is a classic example of a magazine as institution. Why did the publisher want a new look?
Consumer Reports as a brand has a long and well-respected history. Consumer Reports magazine is one of the most important assets of that brand. The magazine is directly linked to Consumers Union, the policy and action division of Consumer Reports. Consumers Union lobbies for consumer safety and empowerment to pass consumer protection laws on the state and Congressional level. Revenue from the magazine also funds the efforts of Consumers Union.
Over the years the magazine had become too safe and began to feel outdated. It had added on different design treatments and the typographic hierarchy became diluted, making the issue hard to navigate.
The magazine’s newsstand sales had begun to decline even though their subscription rate was holding steady. They have a loyal and passionate reader base that will eventually age out. Our goal was to create a magazine that functioned on multiple levels, drawing attention to the advocacy and giving readers a reason to return for more than product reviews. We felt that the organization’s lesser-known and highly influential advocacy work would resonate with a broader and younger audience. CR’s focus on consumer power would allow us to create more story conceits beyond the product review while giving greater visibility and promotion to the original mission of the brand, advocating for the consumer.
How did you get the gig?
We were both contacted separately through two different referrals/recommendations.
What was your mandate? What were you trying to accomplish with your redesign?
Our mandate was to modernize the editorial content and address look and feel of the publication without abandoning the history of the institution or disregarding the brand.
We were faced with several problems. We took a design-driven approach to create a clear and recognizable structure, develop a modern and consistent design vocabulary for photography and illustration, and recommend and employ typography solutions to rebuild hierarchy. Additionally we consulted on new editorial sections and story conceits to appeal to new readers while not alienating their longstanding subscribers.
Where there any taboos you could or could not bust?
The content is what makes the publication great. We wanted to honor the painstaking research that goes into creating that content all while telling each story in the most compelling way possible.
There seems to be a new approach to infographics and charts …
We wanted to rethink and redesign the ratings charts from the ground up. That unfortunately was not an option. We did make some small improvements to the ratings chart but we also introduced new charts and infographics that conveyed to the CR team that there are multiple ways to present complex information.
Tell me about reader-submitted material.
This is a page of reader-submitted artifacts that include misprints or inaccuracies in products. Readers and the CR staff LOVE this page. The process to lay this page out is very hard. CR is not in control of the quality of the submissions; they curate the content from is what submitted by readers. At times, to no fault of the design staff, it often looked like a page of stuff that fell out of the waste basket.
Cybele really cracked the code for a successful solution. She proposed shooting one main object, illustrate the rest, and highlighted the “mistake” using color. Unfortunately, this page semi-reverted due to reader and internal feedback. Did I mention it was beloved?!
In the age of diminished futures for magazines, how do you make it look sustainable? Or is that not an issue?
The sustainability of this publication lays in what they do best and are known for: consumer empowerment through unbiased, unbought and thoroughly scientific product and service reporting. Consumers will always need someone who is going to tell them the truth.
What did you learn about the magazine while you were preparing to redesign?
We knew that the magazine had a reputation for being unbiased, thorough and trusted. The one things that amazed us the most were the testing labs. We toured the facilities in Yonkers, which included a different lab for almost everything from electronics to food. They even have their own 327-acre auto test track facility in upstate Connecticut, which is home to more than 20 staff members.
Consumer Reports is a collective of extremely dedicated scientists, engineers, researchers and statisticians. The testing is thoroughly scientific and carefully measured. These are real unbiased laboratories for testing and measuring performance. Everything is subjected to stringent scientific evaluations.
We met with the head of each content creation group. During the interview process each member explained what was most important in their area of focus and what they felt was currently underrepresented within their category.
What was the biggest change in the new design?
We changed just about everything for the magazine, with the exception of the logo and the ratings system. We introduced a new cover strategy, created new content sections, recurring regular columns, we readdressed the typography and the hierarchical structure, and we conceived new ways of creating artwork.
One of the biggest changes was introducing a new approach to the cover. The cover strategy now incorporates a distinct CR point-of-view, focusing on one highly-relevant topic that is illustrated by a single conceptual image. This new direction leverages the top-third of the page by placing secondary cover lines above the Consumer Reports wordmark for high visibility on the newsstand.
There was not much difference between the front-of-book, the well, and the back-of book. To create more distinct separation and clarify the navigation we made editorial, design, photography and illustration recommendations that are unique to each section but share the same common vocabulary.
We also added a great photo editor, Mary Cahill, to the team. Mary was integral to the process as her expertise and counsel helped bring in all the great photographers to elevate the entire magazine.
How many iterations did you go through?
Our process was long and thorough. 75% of the process was strategy development. Through site observations, interviews, as well as competitive and historical audits, we gathered research and presented our findings. Then we partnered with the CR leadership to develop the strategy and create initiatives. This made the iterative process more streamlined.
We then presented four design directions. The client selected one. The chosen direction closely resembles the relaunch issue. We art directed, designed and released the launch issue within about a month and a half of the design presentation.
Are you pleased with the result?
Yes, CR was the perfect partner and great collaborators, they still are, the relationship has continued past the initial redesign. They trusted and challenged us throughout the process. We are very happy with the results and the overall experience.
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