Over the years corporate magazines (once called “house organs”) have had a home-grown feel that have separated them from “real” consumer publications sold at newsstands. In fact, if they weren’t given out free, most people would not pay to get a copy. What do top-selling magazines do that inhouse publications often don’t? We asked Pentagram’s Kit Hinrichs, @Issue co-founder/design director, and designer of several mainstream magazines, including United Airlines’ Hemispheres, Coastal Living, Exhibitor, and Red Herring as well as publications for countless corporations, museums, cruise lines and institutions, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Discoveries magazine, shown here.
Q. At a time when so much content is going online, why are printed inhouse magazines still relevant?
Hinrichs: Because readers – even employees – are unlikely to go online to seek out the kind of “soft” news that corporate publications typically present. But if the magazine is physically put in their hands, in their mailbox, they may find it of great interest. Those receiving it (whether an employee, a member of an institution, a customer or a supplier) will see it as an amenity produced just for them. When the publication has interesting content and a striking design, people are grateful to be included. Conversely, when it looks and reads like a self-serving corporate “puff piece,” it may have the opposite effect. The assumption that employees and key stakeholders will read anything put before them is wrong. It is a mistake to think you have a captive audience. We are all bombarded with too many distractions to waste time on something that bores us.
Q. Graphically, what makes a mainstream magazine more readable?
Hinrichs: Structure and pacing are two reasons. Both in visual style and editorial pacing, consumer publications are structured to have a beginning, middle and end, so people know where they are in the book. Readers know where to find recurring sections and look for main features in the well of the book. Articles have headlines not headings. Images, whether used to document or as metaphors, give greater meaning to the story being told, and are not merely decorative. Major pubs also tend to avoid over formatting. A problem common to many inhouse magazines is that every spread looks basically the same. It’s like the designer came up with one page layout and repeated it over and over. There is no variety, no surprise when you turn the page.
Q. The inhouse magazine has been viewed as the “stepchild” of corporate communications, restricted by a meager budget.
Hinrichs: A limited budget is no excuse. Spend the money where it will have the greatest impact (e.g., the cover), then handle other sections in a simpler fashion. Use typography as a graphic element with pull-quotes and provocative headlines. A sure route to mediocrity, however, is relying on existing file photos and cliché “grin-and-grip” CEO shaking hands with VIP photographs and employee group shots. Same goes for gratuitous artwork, use of patterns for no reason and overuse of corporate colors. Like for mainstream magazines, the criteria for what goes in and what stays out is whether it contributes to content, whether it draws readers into the story.
Q. If it is a corporate magazine, shouldn’t it reflect the brand?
Hinrichs: It should feel like a magazine that can stand on its own. Successful magazines express their own unique personality through visual style and editorial tone of voice. A corporate brochure markets; a corporate magazine is meant to inform. To be credible, it should use brand elements sparingly. That said, I think the content should be “indigenous” to the company or institution. The stories should focus on what makes them unique, innovative, forward-thinking through examples that substantiate such claims.
Q. At its best, what does a corporate magazine have to offer the company?
Hinrichs: A first-class magazine – well-written and well-designed — has the potential to position a company as a thought-leader in its industry. It can generate pride among its employees and make recruits, partners and suppliers view it as a company with which they want to be affiliated. It also allows companies and institutions to shape their own story, tell it in their own voice and draw attention to the areas where they are strongest.