Trade magazine art directors talk about Ready-Media

Trade magazine art directors talk about Ready-Media The recent launch of Roger Black and friends' new project, Ready-Media, created a storm of controversy within the publication design community. The post about the project that ran on the SPD site garnered almost 80 comments, from some of the top publication designers in the field. Many of the comments were highly critical of the project's concept to create out-of-the-box newspaper and magazine templates that require the users to "just add content." 

A good amount of the comments, both pro and con, centered on Ready-Media's potential impact on trade and business-to-business (B2B) magazines. We asked four art directors with extensive experience in the trade and B2B area to share their opinions on this controversy. Here are comments from art directors Francesca Messina, Don Morris, Mitch Shostak, and Florian Bachleda.

Trade magazines above: HQ (Francesca Messina), Snap (Mitch Shostak), Government Executive (Don Morris), What Matters (Florian Bachleda).

Francesca Messina is Senior Group Art Director at McGraw-Hill, overseeing the 17 business-to-business publications that the McGraw-Hill Construction division produces. These include Architectural Record, GreenSource, Engineering News Record, and HQ. Before working at McGraw-Hill she was the creative director at Guideposts and managing art director at BusinessWeek.

Francesca Messina: Having moved recently from the consumer world to trade/B2B, I have had to serve niche, industry-specific communities with both a business and an art direction perspective in a corporation whose primary focus is not magazine publishing. I've always known that my craft needed to serve the business imperative, and that the more I could learn about the business of making magazines the better I could do my job. Some of the association publications we produce bring in a very small profit but extend our connection to that particular industry. Why not create them with smart, templated pages like the ones that Ready-Media is offering? Some of my magazines have no art directors at all--they are produced by "production art directors" with no journalism or editorial art direction experience. My challenge is to ruthlessly protect the editorial art director's role and apply it in the mix where it brings value and makes that particular magazine more successful, both in terms of engaging its audience and making money. That means continually advocating for that role in a business where design can become commoditized. So why not own that commoditization and spend your budget dollars--ever shrinking--wisely?

In the last year and half, I've launched two publications (HQ and SNAP), working with Neil Russo and Shostak Studios, on shoestring budgets, but keeping the editorial art director's role intact. I've worked with Ted Keller to redesign GreenSource magazine in-house, developing tight page templates that are xml-tagged to automate and facilitate the repurposing of words and images to our very robust range of other digital entities--daily blasts, e-newsletters, websites, and iPad editions. I'm currently working on the redesign of Architectural Record with Helene Silverman, also in-house. But for one association publication, and a trend report, I've developed tight templates, and narrowed the art director's role to the creation of the covers and critical information graphics, which can't be "templated," which require interpretive thinking and a skill set that can't be taught quickly (Donald Partyka has lent his talents to this effort). In a way, it's my own "Ready-Media" product.
Roger Black's templates could definitely serve some of my needs. My role is to define which approach serves the imperatives of the publications, and to advocate for those that need the expensive crafting and art direction in order to be financially successful to the bean counters.

Don Morris has worked on an extensive array of consumer, enthusiast, trade, and B2B publications. Recent redesigns include Fine Cooking magazine, and Zappos Life, the print catalog for He's currently working on a project with trade publisher Hanley-Wood.

Don Morris: The reality is that small publishers are the ones that need unique building blocks the most. For these businesses, custom templates go a long way to address specific needs and conjure a unique personality. These publications don't have the budget for the many "invited guests" that populate the pages of bigger, more successful magazines. Imagine a talk show that couldn't afford to book many celebs--the host better be good! Instant pages will get you started, but shortly thereafter the staff will have to innovate--and evolve--the way they engage their audience. And these days, if you don't get it right quickly, it may be over for you very fast. Besides, what we do best--making powerful images and telling stories that reflect the times we're living in--doesn't reside in templates.

Mitch Shostak has designed and redesigned numerous consumer, trade, association, and business-to-business publications.

Mitch Shostak: I remember when Quark was first introduced. For several years many corporate communications and marketing managers were firing design firms and having their executive assistants and interns buy the software to produce newsletters and publications at a fraction of the cost. After a while design firms were being called back to fix up the publications that were a dismal mess. This happened when the brilliant managers were getting grief from their bosses, because the publications had become less than mediocre.

There probably will be several brilliant magazine publishers who will jump at the opportunity to save some dough. They will use some poorly compensated junior person and use this pop-it-in-the-oven smorgasbord approach to put together their magazines. They will save some money for a while and will congratulate themselves on their innovative budget management and use of the newest available software. When they start noticing that the other guy's magazines look just like theirs and that their design does not really speak to their readers in their own voice, they will start calling in art directors and designers to fix the problem. Maybe even to redesign the magazine. What a concept!

I assume the templates are well made. The magazines posted on the Ready-Media website are nicely designed, although they do look like siblings, if not first cousins. They are straight-forward, simply-attired, and seem well-mannered. It may be that small, specialized publishers who are not competing for ads or readers, will be well served if the cost is affordable. This may be a good product for a particular segment of the magazine industry. There seems to be a lot of concern about the overall effect this product/service will have on our craft as designers and art directors. I don't think this will cause lowered expectations from smart publishers, but photography and illustration has certainly suffered from the proliferation of stock images. This does seem to be a smart business model for Ready-Media. Ultimately the costs will determine how competitive this stock design solution may be, and to what market it will appeal.

Florian Bachleda is the creative director of Latina magazine, and with his own FBDesign studio has worked extensively on trade, business, and custom publishing magazines.

Florian Bachleda: I might be guilty of being completely naive and out of touch about this, but I just don't think Ready-Media is going to have any major effect on the overall industry. I do agree with Arem Duplessis that in some places it will unfortunately replace the jobs of young designers, but (hopefully) not on a huge, mass scale. We'll have to wait and see. I think some smaller publishers will certainly use it, but I don't think any major ones will. I don't see most publishers--big or small--wanting to feel like they're not producing something that is their own.

Being someone who has had the opportunity to work on a variety of publications for very different clients, one common thing that I keep coming back to is the personal interaction that is necessary between an art director and an editor/client. I think these templates can only deliver so much of that. That is until a template comes along that can get you out of attending meetings.....

The statements by Don Morris and Mitch Shostak originally appeared in the comments section of the original "Just Add Water" post, in somewhat different form.

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  • James Kelleher

    Next up from Roger Black, Treesaver, an automatic digital layout tool:

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