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Redesigning the Member Experience - 6/20/2011 -

The magazine redesign process can feel a bit like a balancing act. Here’s some advice from the Masons of California on how to strike just the right cord with current members and future generations.

By Cecily Walters

It may have undergone its second significant redesign since 1954 not too long ago, but the Masons of California’s California Freemason magazine has kept its design looking current and fresh. At the recent 2011 Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting, Angel Alvarez-Mapp, creative editor, California Freemason, and Joshua C. Chen, principal and creative director, Chen Design Associates, shared some tips and best practices they picked up throughout the publication redesign process in their session titled, "Balancing Act: Redesigning the Member Experience."

Alvarez-Mapp began by explaining the history of the magazine and providing an overview of the Masons. Freemasons belong to the world’s largest fraternal organization. Membership is secret and open to men only, with more than 50,000 members in California, 2 million in the United States and 5 million worldwide.

California Freemason, which is not supported by advertising, went through minor redesigns in 1974 and 1983 before moving to its current format and incorporating color throughout in subsequent years. "About one year ago, we wrote a new five-year plan for the organization,” explained Alvarez-Mapp. "We decided that the magazine needed to show our relevance to the world and that we needed to reach members of all ages.”

To begin the redesign process, the magazine staff participated in a half-day in-house branding workshop, where they discussed audience expectations, Chen said. They chose not to have members involved for this session because "We wanted the magazine to have a new personality and look, and we didn’t want members to feel tied to the old look or persona,” he detailed. (The staff conducted a reader survey one year before the redesign.)

The branding workshop revealed that the staff of California Freemason felt that it was important to creatively inform (through such techniques as using graphics) and to strike a balance "with the typography and approach for a range of ages,” Chen said. (Most members are between ages 38 and 60, while most new members are between ages 38 and 45.) The team also wanted to focus on world issues and expand the publication’s coverage beyond California.

They looked at the range of other publications that their audience members read, such as The Economist, GQ and Sports Illustrated. While reviewing these other magazines, they clipped out images that they felt defined the personality of California Freemason. Similarly, Chen’s firm collected visually inspiring images to use as ideas for elements of the redesign.

Chen noted that the team had the freedom to consider a variety of ways to express the brand using the masthead because the publication is not sold on the newsstand. Staff members chose an overall color palette that remains consistent from issue-to-issue and experiment with layering effects and textures in layouts.

Usually original photos are used, but the remainder of the time, the team uses stock art that they work on altering to look more like original images. Since the redesign, California Freemason’s staff has worked on presenting data in a more infographic way. In addition, the paper itself is now different. The magazine is now printed on a more matte, 30 percent recycled paper.

To choose what colors to use in a particular issue, the team reads the articles to determine what they evoke. Each issue of the bimonthly magazine has a theme, which the staff determines by considering the overall balance of the year to figure out how to reach the most members. They also take care to consider the demographics for the cover.

When it comes to best practices for publications looking to begin a similar redesign process, "Don’t just change everything because you can,” advised Alvarez-Mapp. "Make a change because you need it, your readers will get it and it has a purpose.”

Cecily Walters is assistant editor for School Nutrition magazine at the School Nutrition Association in National Harbor, Md. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for volunteering to cover this annual meeting session for our members who were unable to attend.


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