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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.”

The magazine’s new look is clean, bold and colorful. New typeface families were brought in: Guardian and Brunel from Commercial Type and National from Kris Sowersby. “We wanted to find some new families of type that were both extremely readable but contemporary. Some of the best typefaces in history are being designed now. Readability, a sense of style and a sense of contemporary-ness were important,” explains de Vries. Oversized light weights of National with heavy bolds in Guardian and large Brunel numerals along with bright uses of color catch the eye. Striking covers have graphics and headlines playing against a white background. Another key part of the visual refresh: lively charts and diagrams. “Innovative infographics are extremely relevant to our audience,” says de Vries. “One of the huge themes happening in business is ‘big data’—those massive streams of data that are being collected.”

Harvard Business Review curates content from all its sources into distilled guides. They are available in digital and print formats.

The redesign included a reorientation of editorial as well. One example: the new Spotlight series pairs feature articles with a set of existing artwork from a living fine artist, adding a layered, metaphoric visual theme in place of stock or commissioned illustration. The artists benefit from the high-profile placement in front of a smart viewership and the magazine also benefits. “It allows for a little more abstraction,” de Vries continues. “Our readers are sophisticated. We can show some tangential connections through art. Our culture, even our business culture, is extremely visual and very emotional. It’s a compliment to our readers to give them this other visual line to work with. It gives us some more color, more variety to work with and, in turn, that helps us not have to deal with hoary business clichés.”

Bold typography and graphics also liven up HBR’s native iPad app. Here graphics can be animated, content can be accessed in linear and nonlinear options and, more importantly, content becomes dynamically updated by pulling from the web. With integrated social media options, readers engage and share in ways not possible with print. Viewed through the iPad app or on the website, those conversations are of critical importance to the hbr readership. “The electronic means of communication are a way of tapping into a much younger, broader, much more international audience. We have ten million website views a month and a very big international audience. And that’s largely driven by the blog posts and the fact that people can access it from anywhere in the world. And there are vigorous discussions that go on that way.”

The launch screen for one of Harvard Business Review's mobile apps. The Harvard Business Review iPad app is a hub that constantly updates the blog and digital content, the magazine, books and tools for subscribers. It's a powerful way to deliver value to readers.

An important consideration at every step is how to continue to serve the readers. For example, de Vries and his team have created a series of free mobile apps offering the popular HBR executive summaries and management and stat tips of the day: “The reason we’re doing this is not just because we think it’s fun, but because we know that managers and people in business use these.”

The time and money required to create successful, functional and aesthetically exciting iPad and mobile apps is not insignificant. “For some magazines, the iPad is like an incredible resource drain, a money drain. It takes a lot more effort to make the experience on the iPad work really well, but we certainly see that there's a commercial future here and the potential for us as a brand is really strong, helping connect with our readers and their loyalty to us.”

Three books from the current line up of HBR Press. The jackets are more confident and contemporary, more in line with the overall creative spirit of the Harvard Business brand.

The exact definition of the modern magazine is a moving target, but that is where de Vries finds the creative challenge. “What I think is exciting about Harvard Business Review is that there's a chance to make these different aspects of a publication work together. These are new territories, so there’s not really been a die cast on how you have to do it. Nothing stays still and everything's rolling along and constantly changing its requirements. There’s a real experimental process to it. And that’s a great thing for a creative designer to think about, ‘What do I want this process to be?’ It’s a lovely creative design exercise to think of how things translate into different media and make the most of them so it’s a pleasurable and useful experience.” ca 

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 designsharp@angelynngrant.com. In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.

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