6.20.2013

The Summer Issue: Thumbs Up! (A Review)

The arrival of the summer issue of Martha Stewart Living on newsstands marks a significant departure from the magazine's former distribution schedule and from its former design. For the first time since 2001, the magazine will not be releasing a stand-alone August issue, opting instead to sandwich the July and August content into one summer issue. The magazine has also undergone a significant design makeover, led by Cybele Grandjean, Kevin Brainard, Jenn McManus and Jaspal Riyait. My copy arrived in the mail earlier this week and I've been browsing its pages, making notes on some of the design changes and compiling some thoughts. 
Readers will be greeted by a clean, sparse cover with some notable design changes. The title is now flat (without the outline) and the ''g'' has reverted back to its pre-2004 font. The name Martha Stewart is now slightly larger and bolder, as shown in the photo below that compares the title from an earlier issue to the current issue. A new, stencil-like font is showcased and is seen throughout the issue, and the abundance of white space on the cover hints at what is to come in the pages beyond. 
Inside the magazine, editor-in-chief Pilar Guzman describes the design changes: "You will notice more white space around the pictures,"she writes in her letter, "balanced by pages that use every opportunity to teach...and connect you to additional content on our website and through social-media outlets. We've brought back detailed illustrations where we felt pictures wouldn't suffice...to turn inspiration into immediate action." Additional changes include the removal of the Ask Martha column and the introduction of a new section at the back of the book called the "How-To Handbook," which is where you will now find the columns on healthy living, petkeeping, homekeeping and advice from experts. Below are some examples of page layout and graphic design from the Summer 2013 issue. Continue reading below for my take on the design changes.
WHAT THEY ARE GOING FOR:
 
Martha Stewart Living has always been a pioneer in lifestyle photography and graphic design, always at the forefront, which is why I first fell in love with the magazine. I started reading it because it was different and offered information about subjects no one else was talking about. As it grew in popularity so too did the offerings of its competitors, such as Real Simple, which is now surpassing MSL in newsstand sales, ad sales and subscriptions. Martha Stewart Living, which is struggling to support itself, had little choice but to differentiate its appearance in a market that is now saturated with copycat magazines that have pushed the "Martha Stewart look" into ubiquity.
 
In an effort to change, the designers at MSL have turned to younger lifestyle publications that are emerging as the new leaders in magazine design. Many of them have won design awards in categories previously dominated by Martha Stewart Living and all of them are being read by a younger demographic - readers who are more discerning, more particular about their content and more interested in design than ever before. And these readers will pay more to get their fix. (I know, because I'm one of those readers!)
 
In my first entry of the year on this blog I suggested a design overhaul of Martha Stewart Living and mentioned several magazines that I was reading. By looking at some of them (below) you can see what the MSL designers were going for: cleaner, more minimal designs, the use of linear elements to separate, stress or designate various themes, more impactful photography and layouts that are more honed to the subject, more succinct.
 
I actually really like the new design changes that have been made to Martha Stewart Living, although I may be a minority. I think the look of the summer issue of Living feels fresh and alive, like a breeze has blown through a previously-stuffy room. I felt energized by the layout - awake. I felt drawn in by the photography and captivated by the minimalism. And this from someone who has been reading MSL for nearly 15 years. I found myself looking forward to the next issue, to see how the layout would cradle subjects like decorating, Halloween and the Holidays. My imagination was stirred.
 
On the other hand, I still miss the writing. I miss writers like Susan Heeger and Bunny Wong, Pete Mars and Laura Wallis. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Pilar Guzman (MSL editor-in-chief) recently said that the "days of the 1000 word front-of-book stories are over" - a sentiment echoed by Joseph Lagani, the company's chief revenue officer. "We understand that people are coming for short, consumable bites of information. People are not spending an hour with you. They’re there to get something.”
 
These sentiments certainly do not speak for me. I am looking for content to treasure, to return to again and again, for content so good and so rich in quality that I will spend an hour with you, and hopefully two. I'm looking for something more than a soundbyte. (The world is full of meaningless, disposable soundbytes.) I want stories. With the exception of the Good Things column and the Our Finds section, I see no need for a front-of-book section at all, frankly. Martha's article should be part of the back section of the magazine and expanded greatly, since so many of us want to hear about her life, her tastes and her homes. The Good Living section could similarly be parlayed into a monthly feature story, highlighting (in depth) one aspect of good living, whether it's gardening, decorating, crafting or entertaining.
 
One very nice touch in the summer issue was the article on page 114 about the garden of George Schoelkopf, a garden first featured in the May, 2003, issue of Martha Stewart Living. It was a garden that deeply inspired me when I first read about it ten years ago and to see it again was very enjoyable for me. Editorially, this connection to a past issue through a visit to an evolving garden was ingenious. I also really enjoyed the essay by Monica Wood.
 
Overall, the design team has achieved a very good renovation - a redesign that is forward-thinking and on target with what is trending in the lifestyle publication market. This bodes well for MSL's survival. It demonstrates a willingness to change and evolve. And I like that. Watch for a complete redo of the MarthaStewart.com website in the coming weeks, which will reflect the changes made in the magazine. Also watch for a new special Halloween issue this fall! (Very exciting!)
 
INSPIRED BY...
These are magazines I read and that seem to have inspired the redesign team at MSL. Notice the page layouts, the use of bold fonts, the use of line and white-framed photography and compare these to the layouts in the summer issue of Martha Stewart Living. Magazines below include Milk, Pure Green, Gather Journal, Kinfolk and Bon Appetit.
 
 



19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love the new layout--you've totally nailed the feeling--that the pages draw you in and make you hungry for more. I agree with you also--I miss the writing. Somehow the soundbites fall short and make me feel like something is missing. As a charter subscriber, I would look forward to each issue and savor it for several hours.

Ailsa said...

You are a genius Andrew. I agree; this new layout and production is spot on. I am loving Pilar's take on things, if it is her doing...
You also got me onto Pure Green and Anthology, and now I've subscribed to Wilder as well. These glorious new mags are the new standard and the old standbys like MSL would do well to pay attention. I will pay more money for something of high quality with few ads just to get my money's worth.

Anonymous said...

Loving the simplicity! I hope it stays this way. One thing I would change though is that I wish Martha Stewart's name was bigger than the word 'Living'. I think it would attract people more who see it on newsstands.

Andrew Porter said...

Hi Andrew. I have been reading your blog in the UK for a long time and in part you have inspired me to start my own with a similar focus. Only 1 post so far - but getting there! As a Martha fan and subscriber to Living I'm looking forward to getting this issue when it eventually makes it across the pond! Hope they don't dumb down the content too much - I like the extended writing and in depth articles. Keep up the good work!
Andrew

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

@ Andrew and Ailsa, thank you for the high praise! @ Anonymous #2 I agree with your suggestion to make Martha's name more prominent. It's a must.

Anonymous said...

I'm warming up to the look and design of the magazine. (Change is difficult for me). More importantly, I look forward to your blog as much as receiving my new issue of Living. Keep up the great work!
A FanI'm warming up to the look and design of the magazine. (Change is difficult for me). More importantly, I look forward to your blog as much as receiving my new issue of Living. Keep up the great work!
A Fan


ANDREW RITCHIE said...

@ Anonymous #3, I'm glad you look forward to my next post. Thank you so much. I find the new design very exciting.

Catherine from Connecticut said...

I am still processing how I feel about the issue. I love the clean, open layout and design. It looks modern and feels fresh. The photography is beautiful. I also like the concise instructions for recipes and projects. However, the issue feels less substantive and maybe because it is a summer issue. I look forward to the September issue. Also, Andrew thank you for your blog. I am so happy when you make a new post. You have so much useful and interesting information.

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Thank you, Catherine! I do agree about with you. For a double issue (July & August) it's quite thin. Like all magazines, they're struggling with ad sales. I'm hoping for the best.

Janet said...

I agree with you 100%, love the new (former?) layout, but miss the content terribly!

I will forever hope for a return to the plentiful content that once was Martha Stewart Living magazine. I know this makes me a dinosaur because the trends clearly point us towards on-line content - but there is so much lacking in it I can't stand it.

Oh, and while you're at it... Please mark me down for the return of Martha by Mail too!

xo

Anonymous said...

I too miss the serious articles. Being a subscriber since the second issue I used to read the magazine from cover to cover - appreciating the fact that I didn't have to turn more than one page to continue. These days I feel that the content has been dumbed down and the inclusion of Everyday Food is no substitute for MS Living's content as the people at MSL have been trying to persuade me that it is. It looks like the magazine is going the way of the show - very sad

Anonymous said...

I usually agree with you but in this case I just can't.
Mind you, I've only looked through the magazine once but I was bored. Didn't see anything I wanted to linger over.
The thing I always loved about the magazine was the dazzling beauty, thought and creativity that went into each page. Why do I want to see more white space?
The content veers from cooking to gardening to cooking to travel to cooking to something else, like they couldn't make up their minds about anything.
But I'll give it another look. In general, though, my feeling is Martha doesn't follow, she leads.
Leave the white space and pithy stuff to Real Simple and the other very fine mags that you have turned us on to, but let Martha be Martha.
Sorry, I'm disappointed.

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Don't be sorry! I'm actually surprised more people aren't as disappointed as you are, Anonymous. As I said in the post, I feel that I am likely a minority in my love of the new changes.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, in response to your response of June 30, I gave it another look and while it's a perfectly fine magazine, it really isn't Martha Stewart Living anymore. All the little odds & ends have been expanded while the more substantive stuff is diminished.
Except for cooking. Now food & recipes turn up in almost every section! Since when are recipes part of Good Things? Since now, I guess.
I like the clearly defined sections except they don't flow, not only because of all the food but as in the case of "Our Finds" - it starts with the picture of Barbara Shaum's footwear but you turn the page looking for more and instead get two pages on San Francisco and a page of stuff to buy. You don't see Shaum again until five pages later and then it's just two small paragraphs on a really interesting artisan.
I am not averse to change, but New MSL seems like New Coke.
I feel the perceived need to appeal to a younger, wider demographic has ruined TV and will probably ruin magazine publishing. So many of my favorite mags have already disappeared.
New MSL feels like it was designed for people with ADD but I hope it will find new readers. I just don't see myself renewing my subscription and I've been there since the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Well said, anonymous!! In a word, simlpified, dumbed-down. Very possibility the beginning of the end of a innovative, high-styled publication. Let's see what happens next. . . .

Regine said...

I subscribed and have just received the July/August. Although the heart of the magazine is there, simply said, the white space is pointless for the reader and the paper is cheap. It appears that it's change for the sake of change and nothing stood out as an improvement. I kick now myself for recently purging and throwing out many back issues......

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Thanks for the comment, Regine. I throw out many old magazines, but I keep ALL of Martha's. They are the only ones I keep. I know that I would regret giving away even a single issue, so I keep them all. As for the new layout, I think it take time for readers to get used to it. I do agree that the paper is a bit thin and flimsy.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved the summer issues of MSL. I don't mind the changes at all; in fact, looking at the photos here reminds me how good it is. Having said that, MSLO has been declining since the Imclone scandal. It's been very long, and the company has certainly put up a fight, but once people lose interest, it's over. The whole thing is similar to JCP; the fact that they are so much better now than before is lost. People have moved on. I wish both companies well. And I encourage them to do whatever it takes to survive, but both brands are tainted.

Catherine Murray said...

I'm usually on board with brands changing with the times. I'm not on board with this one.

I go to Martha Stewart for her amazing attention to detail, wide scapes (instead of focused close-ups), in-depth themes, and overall upgraded examples of creativity in daily living. She would list every tool you could ever need to carve a pumpkin, create beautifully detailed Easter eggs, decorate every corner of a child's bedroom. I never tried to BE Martha, because she was the best of the best. But I loved gleaming bits and pieces of her brilliance to place into my life. I aspired to be a MSL photographer because of the grandness and distinct style. I wanted to create photos that were undeniably Martha.

From what I see of this issue, it could be any blog, any magazine. It looks just like the rest. I know there's a lot of marketplace pressure (as a content contributor, I know that pressure firsthand), but MSL was a masterpiece. This is a complete overhaul, one that doesn't reflect Martha's essence at all. I can FEEL the bend to the industry. Desperation doesn't look good on Martha.

Cutting down on wording makes sense to me in a content-saturated world. People want quick. I hate to see great writing go by the wayside, though.