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James de Vries
Editorial Re-imagining at the Harvard Business Review

by Angelynn Grant

With the current speedy evolution of publishing, a “magazine” can be the paper you hold in your hand or a collation of articles on a web portal or a multimedia experience on a post-PC device—or all of the above. A magazine is its content and, when done well, the appropriateness of a medium and creative delivery determines where the reader finds that content and in what form and format. This reader-centric concept is part of the fresh vision brought to the Harvard Business Review by its new creative director James de Vries.

In addition to its flagship print magazine, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Group publishes books, digital content and tools and is one of three groups that comprise Harvard Business Publishing, a nonprofit organization owned by the Harvard Business School. First published in 1922, the magazine holds a venerable position in the business community, with a reputation for deeply researched articles that automatically bring readers to it. “One of the things I found most attractive about coming here is that Harvard Business Review is fortunate to have people who actually pay for and use its content,” notes de Vries. “With many consumer magazines, the circulation model is to purchase subscribers, to basically buy them by having very, very cheap magazines, maximizing circulation. Harvard Business Review is very loved by its core readership and it produces real career value for people.”

Cover of the April 2012 Harvard Business Review and interior double-page information graphic
showing heatmaps of world risks.

A few years ago, it was clear the magazine had to move beyond its staid, somewhat stuffy look and also embrace new technologies. In 2009, Adi Ignatius, former deputy managing editor at Time, came onboard as the new editor-in-chief and, along with Harvard Business Publishing CEO David A. Wan, set the tone for a new era in forward-thinking editorial re-imagining. “Ignatius’s experience was very much immediacy, very much understanding what a difference visual presentation makes,” says de Vries. “He was hired with this mandate to rejuvenate HBR Group. And David Wan was brave enough to say, ‘We need to revolutionize our business.’ It was clearly a mandate to do some serious change. It was not, ‘Can you do a redesign?’ of the kind where you change a few fonts, that sort of stuff. It was very much tied to a rethinking of ‘What do we do to embrace the future of publishing and be a vital publisher as other technologies start to come into play?’”

De Vries’s studio de Luxe & Associates won the bid to do the initial redesign. Located in Australia, de Luxe had an extensive background in magazine and newspaper design with a particular specialty in business and financial publications. Their work wasn’t just on visual makeovers, but in helping refocus editorial. “The creative combination of editorial and visual together is what makes editorial magic,"”de Vries states. “Editorial communication, I find, is far more authentic and has more commercial traction reaching an audience than any number of glossy corporate brochures. If you can tell real editorial stories to an audience, they're interested.” Also part of the redesign process was the realization that the HBR Group could use a creative director to keep the momentum going through the print, web and apps, as well as coordinate the new ideas across all of Harvard Business Publishing. De Vries helped with their candidate search and, in the end, was invited to take on that role himself in 2011.

Harvard Business Review October 2011, an homage to Milton Glaser’s famous Bob Dylan portrait.
Harvard Business Review
March 2012 was a special issue on the theme of US competitiveness.

The challenge with the Harvard Business Review was to create a new visual language relevant to a younger, more diverse audience in the business community. “In the past, there would have been the fear that if you get too much visual stuff in, you lose your credibility. In other words, it was thought that you’d lose the serious management content,” de Vries explains. “Now people realize that managers are humans, too, and they actually need a deeper, broader, more engaging experience.” These days, a business leader is just as likely to sport a T-shirt as a three-piece suit. “There are people out there who’ve grown up in a very visual media-based culture who need that in order to see something as relevant. So the credibility comes with being visually adept rather than being solemn and overly academic.” Grant
Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.