Real Simple's redesign: The Backstory

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SPD Board member Francesca Messina recently interviewed Abbey Kuster-Prokell, Design Director of Real Simple and Claudia de Almeida, Design Consultant, about their collaborative effort to reshape Real Simple's identity in print and online.

See the work and read about the process...

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What motivated the decision to redesign? Was this an editorial reshaping as well as a new design? 

AKP: We want the magazine to evolve and stay current and felt it was time for a refresh. The last redesign was in September 2009, so this was an opportunity to streamline pages, simplify our process, and create more content that can work digitally as well as in print.

Our goal with the redesign was to create a new modern look for the magazine. This includes a new family of fonts, new columns, new one-pagers, a lot more color and, of course, the smart photography that Real Simple is known for. Real Simple's photography will always play a significant role in the presentation of this brand.  Images continue to be graphic and modern with a mindfulness for beauty.  The photos shape the content and will naturally evolve as they steep in this newly redesigned landscape.  We improved the navigation of the magazine and added more points of entry to the pages. The overall architecture of the pages remained intact, but we set out to organize the information better. We took a close look at how we could be of more service to the reader, while still creating a magazine that is calming and compelling.


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Real Simple is a big brand. How did you consider all of the brand's iterations in conceiving of this redesign? Was it an overhaul of the digital as well as print presences and products (web site, apps, ancillary products)?

CdeA: When approaching a brand like Real Simple, it's absolutely important to look at the history of the magazine. In the case of Real Simple  it has a rich history of beautiful and innovative design as well as a roster of incredibly talented, powerhouse Creative Directors. You just don't start anew, you look for a way to innovate or challenge the themes that have already been established, while addressing some of the key issues that brought you to do a redesign in the first place.

In the case of Real Simple, one of the main things to consider was pacing. We wanted to figure out a way to pace the magazine slightly differently, so you would still have impactful story openers but access to the story would be more immediate.  To do this, we needed to identify the stories where we would keep the big image openers with headline and the ones where we could have it share with copy. Personally speaking, I think that was a needed move; I like the immediacy of being able to get right into the content with some of the longer reads or reportage pieces. This allowed the magazine to feel a bit more conversational and to visually separate the kinds of stories they tell. 

AKP: While redesigning, we definitely kept the entire brand in mind. In addition to the print refresh, is undergoing a redesign. The new site will reflect some of the same design decisions that we made for print, including a few of the same typefaces. As we develop new apps and products, the new design will naturally be integrated.

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Can you talk about new fonts, new photography approaches, and the design rationale?

CdeA: The challenge with Real Simple is that you always need to consider the "Simple" aspect of the brand. But what's simple? How do you do simple without being completely boring and apologetic? Take a look at Robert Valentine's original design of the magazine, and there's your answer. On his approach, he worked with color and type texture by mixing interesting typefaces, but also scale and played with tension on leading. The page geometries were also innovative, as well as unexpected use of white space. One could argue that this is not simple, after all, wouldn't simple be two columns and you call it a day? But it was simply beautiful. 

That was one of the main guiding principles of this redesign (the other ones were smarter use of the number of pages + color and femininity). No design elements, just beautiful typefaces strung together and we'd rely on their personalities alone to get the identity of the magazine through.

I knew right away we needed to find the PERFECT geometric typeface. The simplicity of the shapes and how it can hold a page on its own felt right for Real Simple. Abbey and I decided on Brown, because it's a gorgeous typeface and due to some of its characteristics it felt feminine and appropriate for the brand.

We used Brown heavily on the navigation of the magazine, labeling each section and page with it, and we asked Tal Leming of Type Supply to add a few details to some of those labels that would accentuate the feminine aspect of the typeface and streamline the read in some of them. You can notice in a few ligatures (See the "Realist") and on smaller cross bars lowercase "t" and "f". 

From there on we looked for typefaces that would work well with Brown. We chose to use Mafra Display, Deck and Text by Dino dos Santos in light and semi light for our serif typeface.

For our workhorse sans serif we decided on Marr Sans, because of its slightly woody quality and quirky details that brought a bit of the warmth and decisiveness to the pages. Combined with Giorgio Sans used sparingly for height, it's main use being on the cover, so Abbey could get nice big headlines without overwhelming the photography.

For the bylines, we use Colophon's Monosten, which is a bit of a surprise, to give the pages a slight flavor of handmade, something less than perfect, and to keep the eye moving around and not let those bylines feel just like small print on the page. 

The photography in Real Simple was already incredible; we focused on adding a few new ideas, and simpler more iconic compositions, with fewer elements in the shot. The biggest change is perhaps the FOOD section, where we opted to move away from a prep shot and start the section celebrating food by highlighting a few ingredients used in the recipes within the section. An approach that I personally think is right on with what's going on  with the food industry today, where there is as much focus on the ingredients as there is on the final dish.  We opted to treat the whole section as a package, so everything ties together, creating a nice flow from recipe to recipe. We also made a conscious decision to move away from elaborate table set ups, to simpler compositions against white, to keep the focus on the dish and food styling, which is the big take away from the section.

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Who were the key contributors and can you tell us a little about their roles and why they were involved? How long did the process take?

AKP: While the entire editorial staff participated in brainstorming and planning sessions,
the key contributors from Real Simple were Kristin van Ogtrop, Editor; Sarah Humphreys, Executive Editor; Casey Stenger, Photo Director; and myself, Design Director. Together, we partnered with Claudia de Almeida, who is a design genius. She brought a fresh perspective to how we approach our content and our pages. Her experience working across both print and digital platforms, and her strong design aesthetic energized and inspired our team. 

We started initial conversations with Claudia in spring 2014 and we finished the redesign of the December issue in October 2014. The thinking, planning, creating, designing and editing took about 6 months from start to finish.

What has the reaction been and did this boost newsstand sales and subs?

AKP: The response to the redesign has been very positive with readers and advertisers; it's too early to tell if it has affected newsstand sales and subscriptions.

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