Energy of the City Magazine cover by Picante CreativeTo graphic designers and veterans of magazine publishing, the topic of this blog entry might seem a bit obvious. But this post is meant for those of you new and budding publishers who might just be in the early stages of figuring out how to start a magazine and how to choose a magazine designer. Or maybe you haven’t made it that far yet. In any case, if you’re looking for a little guidance on how to get your magazine up and running, we’re here to help.

Quick — what’s the first thing you notice about a new magazine on the rack? The nameplate? The cover shot? Perhaps. But I’d argue that the first thing you notice, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, is the design. All that is visual in a magazine (which is just about everything, short of the feel of the paper stock) is dependent on the design and layout. No design element exists on its own, and each feeds into a mag’s overall look and feel, creating an integrated whole that speaks to the reader’s eye. And while you might not be a seasoned magazine designer yourself, I’ll bet you know great design when you see it. Of course, what makes “great” design varies somewhat on the magazine’s subject matter and target audience — what might look fantastically elegant in a magazine targeted to upscale soccer moms would likely look completely out of place in a mag marketed to teens. But that doesn’t mean that each distinct magazine brand shouldn’t have a well-thought-out, beautifully planned design that engages its target readers and pulls them into the content. Any magazine, regardless of subject matter, can and should start with a gorgeous design.

Content is crucial, of course — these days more so than ever, with countless sources of news and commentary available in so many different media formats, online and off. You can put together the world’s best magazine design, down to the very last custom detail — but without a consistent source of insightful content to keep readers coming back for more, I doubt you’ll be able to win over your market and catch on like wildfire.

The converse is also true, however. You can craft the world’s most brilliant commentary, but a flat, lifeless, amateurish design won’t draw readers in and keep them engaged long enough to find out just how brilliant your insights may be. And just as you probably know great design when you see it, you — and your readers — probably know mediocre design as well. So the very credibility of your publication at first glance rests on the quality of the design itself, before the first page has even been turned or the first paragraph has been read.

Now take a step back. Beyond just considering the look of your publication on its own, keep in mind how much competition it will have — on the newsstand, on coffee tables, or even (in the case of trade magazines) on your readers’ desks at work. If you want your magazine to be noticed, picked up and pored over, you’ll need to have a solid, professional design that grabs hold of your particular audience. So in any sound magazine business plan, the design has to take top priority and be considered at least as thoughtfully as anything else.

In short, if you’re serious about launching a magazine or redesigning an existing one, design isn’t the place to cut corners. Just as readers may judge a book by its cover, they will certainly — especially at that first crucial buying decision point — be judging your mag by its design.

While design isn’t a great place to skimp, there are certainly ways to make your magazine production overhead more cost-effective. Stay tuned for our coming article on how to get the most out of your printing budget.