How an award-winning magazine is made: Illumination from the University of Missouri

September 1st, 2010 Karine Joly 3 Comments

The online version of Illumination, a magazine published by the University of Missouri, won both best online magazine eduStyle awards (judged and People’s choice) this year.

As a judge for this category, I was really impressed by the quality of its design and the great use of multimedia.

That’s why I contacted Illumination’s designer, Joshua Hughes, multimedia specialist at the Office of Research, to find out how this little gem was put together. As you will see in this email interview, greatness comes with a price: time, work and talent.

1) Illumination won the best online magazine eduStyle award this year, can you tell us how this version was developed?

I joined Mizzou’s Office of Research in August of last year, and it was clear that refreshing the Illumination site was one of the organization’s top goals.

I was quite impressed by our print book right from the get-go. The layout and photography was and is, top-notch. The website, unfortunately, felt like something else entirely. Like most sites, it just placed articles in a standard template. The visual impact you get from reading the magazine was almost completely lost in the translation to the web.

BEFORE
Illuminations - before Dec 2009 redesign

So bringing some of the print aesthetic to the website seemed like a fairly obvious strategy, and I spent the next few months working on a redesign. It was a lot of work, but we were able to launch the new version in early December.

AFTER
Illumination - after Dec 2009 redesign

2) What platform do you use? How long does it take to put the magazine online? Tell us a bit more about your workflow?

The site itself is running very little specialized software. There isn’t a content management system. Aside from a bit of PHP scripting here and there, it’s all handcrafted HTML. This may change in the future, but for now it suits our needs perfectly.

It takes about 2-3 months to put the magazine up, but a lot of that is associated with multimedia production. Generating just the web portion takes about 3-4 weeks.

Most of the web design work is done after the print edition is complete. I use the finished assets to sketch potential layouts and create design comps. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to find ways to make the art direction work on the web, and other times the concepts seem to really come into their own.

3) How do the print and the online versions work together? Are they targeted to different audiences?

Because our print magazine publishes sometime difficult-to-approach stories about advanced research and scholarship, we have to work hard to draw general-interest readers into the book. We’ve found that the most effective way to generate interest is by experimenting with different visual approaches and design styles from issue to issue.

This approach presents unique challenges on the web, where usability and accessibility concerns have to be considered. Our web magazine thus employs a more structured visual scheme that ensures ready site access for a wide range of users. Within this structured framework, however, we do seek to design pages that allow our digital audience to experience the fresh look and feel of each new print book. This means not only repurposing and reconfiguring art and typography published in the print but, most importantly, designing pages that – especially when viewed in e-reader formats – might help our audience move beyond just a “website” and into “digital magazine” experience.

We hope there will be significant overlap between the digital and print audience, and take pains to invite readers each version to seek out the other. Unfortunately, thus far we’ve not been able to collect much data on the extent to which this is happening.

4) What can you tell us about the way readers interact with both versions?

Other than the obvious stuff – print readers turn pages, online readers click through web pages and multimedia – we don’t have a good way to answer this question. We’d love to find the money to design and execute a formal reader survey, but so far we’ve not been able to make it happen. (We have been able to commission some lab-based usability studies in the past, but these were primarily geared toward straightforward, site-navigation issues.)

5) How do you measure success for both versions?

Again, due to our non-existent marketing budget, we haven’t been able to do formal reader/user surveys. Instead we rely on responses via a postage-paid reply card bound into each edition of the print book; comments made via a form on the website; data from web analytics; reprint and republication requests from media, faculty and professional groups; praise and complaints from our faculty, staff and students; and, of course, feedback from sites like eduStyle.

6) There is no way to comment about the articles on the online version. Can you explain the reasoning behind this design decision?

Adding this functionality is a subject that’s still under consideration. In general, our staff and management agree that an open dialogue on the topics we cover has the potential to serve both the mission of Illumination magazine and the University of Missouri as a whole. However, online comments don’t always result in a quality discussion. We need to make sure that if we implement this feature, it adds value to the site. That may not be a given.