Designing Magazines

Long-Form Features

This is the web version of my classroom lecture on feature design, intended for a student audience.

As you dig deeper into magazine design—gaining experience dissecting and working with the various parts and pieces that come together into a published whole—it becomes increasingly clear that while each part of a magazine has a common goal—it must effectively carry the publication’s brand or identity, it must be inviting and readable, art must communicate content effectively, it should be informative and entertaining—each section also comes with individual challenges.

We can consider these more specific challenges briefly:

1. The brief section, an exercise in grid-based design, a place where a dozen or more little pieces must come together into a whole that makes sense, can be visually parsed, and that invites a grazing style of reading. The brief section is like a little newspaper within a magazine.

2. The cover, in which the structure of the image is paramount for suggesting how and where type might be placed. Covers are technically closest to poster or advertising design, they are meant to grab attention in a hurry, or intrigue a reader. A cover is an opportunity to make a grand conceptual statement, (sometimes this can be accomplished with a minimum of cost and technical knowledge if the idea is clever enough), although most consumer magazines do not take advantage of that opportunity, instead larding their first pages with a sea of type.

3. The table of contents (we have not come to this yet) is really an exercise in pure typographical design, an opportunity to make a lot of information accessible and inviting. It can be thought of as a print magazine’s “home page.”

4. (and finally) the feature. Feature stories are the places where most magazines invest the majority of their time and money. They are where the most important stories go, and for designers are generally the place where the best, and most innovative design is done. Many students enter this class thinking they will like the cover best—but actually find that covers can be a bit restrictive. In contrast, feature design provides a large blank space and almost limitless latitude (within the paramaters of effective story telling) for developing type and art.

A feature really has two components: 1. the opening spread and 2. subsequent pages; each of which comes with its own challenges. The opening spread is really a billboard for a story, it is designed to pull the reader in—it shouldn’t intimidate the reader with too much text or a confused organization. On the pages after the opener, the designer’s job is to tell the story in a complete and intriguing way with art (show different components of the story) and through points of entry—pull quotes, photo captions, subheads, infographics, sidebars, or other display type or freestanding items. Students often shortchange these additions, but they are critical because they add visual interest, provides value for a grazer, and encourages grazers to become readers.

We have all had an opportunity to see how other magazines create and maintain momentum in features through the “mash-up” assignment.

Let’s look at opening spreads:

01 neutral

If you break an opening spread down to it’s most basic, for good or bad probably 90% of them look like this one—a picture on one side, and type on the other (I’ve come to refer to these as 50/50 spreads). Of course, there are many exceptions, maybe the picture goes all the way across, maybe the headline does, maybe there’s a collage, but I encourage students to not get too hung up on layout when they design features, the truth is there are a limited number of ways that you can structure feature opener. The secret of successfully designing an opening spread is to think of it as a blank slate—it’s not where on the physical page you put the content that’s important, it’s what that content is, and what you do with your type. The opener is an opportunity for design as visual expression. Within the simple layout above many very different solutions are possible:

01 Vista-Rich Hess


05 StrutFashionFeatMen1_0088


07 Fast Company 1

Fast Company

03 traveler 3

Conde Nast Traveler

11 B&W, 99


17 Type  blaze-goodman


18 Type-Depth mean streets-details


10 wired-gates


27 ArtEsquire Spread


So, from the unpromising basic structure, picture on one side, image on the other, we get 8 spreads with a lot of juice (and a lot of styles, wonky, fashion, high-tech, punk, etc.), some deriving power from image, some from type and some from the combination of the two.  Within the 50/50 format, variety is increased by the way imagery is framed and combined with text. For example, the Spread from Traveler’s plays a long shot against a detail photo and combines art with simple but elegant typography (in this one the main image also takes up slightly more than a single page), the B&W spread immediately below it builds a collage of text and image; and the image doesn’t occupy the whole page. While some of these start the article on the spread, others include just a headline, or just a headline and deck, and despite their differences, all share some commonalities. You’ll note that on the best spreads, even if art and text don’t physically touch they still relate to each other. This is most obvious on the spread from Details, “Mean Streets” where the street poll typography visually links to a street poll in the image, but in the gates spread wispy art links with a wispy computer generated image, The minimalist type of “” matches the stripped down illustration, And the verticality of “Say Hello to My Little Friend” plays off the article”s topic.

The most important tool you will have for building a successful opening spread is a strong image that successfully intrigues the reader and resonates with the thesis of the story. For this reason, it is (as always) critical that read both your features in their entirety and that you devote adequate time to image research. Remember, you are not reading for entertainment (though you may be entertained) you are reading for research—you are looking for scenes and ideas that will help spark the translation of written ideas into visual ideas.

The second most important tool you have is headline typography. Work towards a bold (but appropriate) typographical statement that complements your image rather than competes with it. Don’t be afraid to make the headline quite big or edit it if necessary. Some students will use a feature headline as opportunity to pull out a novelty or shareware typeface, and occasionally these can be used to good effect. But, for the most part, what you do with the typeface is much more important than what the typeface is. While there are lots of evocative typefaces, these often can dominant or distract, or because of the way they are designed, can only be used in limited ways. Look at all the spreads above, although three (B&W, “Karma Chameleon,” and “Mean Streets” have hand rendered, modified or distressed type, the underlying fonts are all within the realm of standard, mainstream typography. It’s hard or impossible to find a pre-existing novelty font that brings just the right touch to your article of feels bespoke as these pages do. You’re better off communicating thought type placement or arrangement, or modifying a font yourself.

Of course, this 50/50 approach to feature design isn’t the only way to layout an opening spread, there are others, but my main point is to think first about content, and the structure will look after itself, here are a few more openers, some close, some fairly far adrift from the examples above:

06 Strut Fashion Spread


23 Type WestvacoInsp192spreadLo


22 fast company 2

Fast Company

10a ESPN spread

ESPN Sports

25a Type LemonSpreadJacket_0016


25 LumpenOneSpread105


At its most basic, an opening spread may have only one or two elements, a headline and picture. It’s possible to add decks, the start of the text (maybe at body size, maybe larger or treated stylishly) maybe author and art credits, maybe a caption or something informational. If you find yourself struggling, it may be that you are trying to balance too many items on the spread. Consider the opener below:

30 Bad YoungMoneySpread2_0002

Two nearly identical photos (neither very interesting) compete with each other, an uninformative info box is given too much prominence, and the headline gets lost. Even just by cutting one of these two pictures, it could have been a much more inviting spread if the designer had thought more about the relative value of the information and sized and placed it accordingly. Of course, better art would have done even more. The article is intended to be a cautionary look at motorcycle ownership, a story that is not told effectively with a picture of a racing-striped driver.

After the Opener

After the opener, pages generally become more text heavy, but stay thematically true to the opening—maintaining color and typographical choices. But as with the opener, your most important concern will be art.

Here’s a way to look at it: after the first spread, it is the writer’s job to tell the story, and the designer’s job to tell that story visually. What that means in terms of art is that just like the writer must constantly make new points and new observations, you must do the same visually. For example, imagine your feature story is a profile of a famous person. Is it enough to illustrate the story with five different pictures of that person—one on each spread or page? Probably not—while a straight portrait might be appropriate for the opening spread, it would be visually tedious, making the same point about the subject over and over again to show more or less equivalent portraits several more times. The writer of the story cannot repeat the same sentiment expressed in the opening paragraph over and over again, but must find new things to say, bring in other opinions and voices and the designer must too. What points do you make after you introduce a subject? Look to the article—In the case of a profile, if you have a controversial person, maybe you show his or her political allies and enemies, combine those photos with quotes by them extracted from the article. If it’s a celebrity and it talks about her private life, maybe you show that—introduce the reader to the husband or children—or whatever. If she builds model ships, you show the ships she builds, or do something else with that.

A pet phrase of some designers is that a solution is contained within the problem—your art solution will be contained within the article you are illustrating. Every article has what journalists call a “news peg”—something new or current which is the reason “Sarah Famous” is being written about now. If you, as designer, just show Ms. Famous, you are not doing your job, you have to engage what is current and newsworthy about the article. This principle extends to any topic, an article about a new product could be “arted up” with the product, but also the CEO of the company that makes it, the product in use, a big stack of products for sale, a competitors product (or a chart that shows competing products, relative costs, problems and benefits.) An article about a beautiful house shows the exterior, but also maybe several rooms, the owners, the architect, and the neighborhood.

When I return next week we will look at some of the ways professional magazines flesh out features and build in points of entry after the opening spread. Your assignment is to build two feature stories, one five and one three pages (minimum) both of which start on an opening spread. They can, but need not reflect one of the cover stories featured on one of your covers.

While article interest is most important, one of the criteria for choosing your features will be length. If the text takes up too great a percentage of your feature space, that won’t leave you a lot of room for design. How much text is too much? It really depends on the number of pages you’re working with, but in general you’ll want to keep the opening spread more or less text-free, and devote about 2/3 of the space to text on subsequent pages. So, for the five-pager, you need a story that flows out as about two pages of body (5-2 for opener = 3 x..66 = 2) and for the short feature you’ll want less than a full page of body.  This is not a hard and fast rule–less density will allow your layout to be more open, or permit more value-added features. Please see the syllabus for other specifics, and e-mail me if you have questions. I will answer individually, and when appropriate, add the questions (anonymously) and answers here.

Larger version of the feature openers in this article can be found here: