The magazine design formula as a model for websites, or digesting soup

Check out your favorite magazine. Thumb through it page by page, start to finish. Notice how the main subject matter of the magazine, the reason you love it so, is visible on the inside front cover, probably in the form of a lust-inducing two-page ad. The next spread, pages 4 and 5, is likely another two page ad in which you are probably less interested. On pages 6 and 7, you find yet another ad for a product that you may like. The pages will vary according to the size of the magazine, but there is a consistency that you have probably noticed.

If you’re looking at an average size magazine such as Martha Stewart Living, Wired, Maxim, or Outside, page 8 or 9 is likely the contents page sitting beside another ad that interests you. Magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and GQ are so fat with ads that you may encounter twenty or more pages of alternating captivating and low-interest advertisements before reaching the table of contents, but the pattern is the same. The next spread has another page of contents which contains at least two articles you searched for on the previous page’s contents, next to an ad that probably holds less interest for you. If your magazine is more in the range of 150-275 pages such as Shape, there is likely a third page of contents alongside an ad for a product that you can only dream of owning.

If you continue turning through the pages one by one, you can see a distinct pattern develop. In both editorial and ads, images relating to the reason people buy the magazine consistently appear every two to three pages. As you pass through the front to middle pages of the magazine, where there is more editorial content and less ads, the frequency of compelling imagery lessens to roughly every six to seven pages. The center spreads will most assuredly contain one photo that holds your interest on every other page. The pattern then repeats in reverse order as you turn towards the back of the magazine.

Most people are unaware of the layout techniques that designers and art directors use to hold their attention like a wind-up doll, balancing editorial and advertising in gripping fashion. Pick up that magazine on your table and try reading it with a new consciousness of how your attentions are being played on every page, and you may find a new appreciation for design.

The print magazine layout formula has worked for decades, and it shows no signs of wearing out. Website designers ought to follow a similar formula, but they rarely do. This is partially due to the infancy of the industry, but it is also due to the fact that the people who design sites are often more left brain than right. Websites are often built by committees rather than designers, thus, effective design can be easily compromised. Add to that a constantly evolving set of technological applications that can be used to develop sites, and you have a recipe for a big mess, which is what many websites amount to. It’s kind of like adding fresh ingredients to a soup right up until the moment you take it off the heat. You may wind up with some unrefined content, haphazard design lacking in strategy, or tough vegetables and raw meat. It’s kind of tough to digest.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

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