The following post was previously published [with some slight edits and updates below] on the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association's blog last year. AMPA has generously provided UPPERCASE a bursary to help offset the costs of travel and accommodation to Toronto to attend DesignThinkers. Thanks, AMPA!
Having heard great reviews of DesignThinkers conference over the years, I finally got to experience it firsthand this year thanks to a bursary from AMPA. With an eclectic variety of speakers, presenters were from a graphic design background (advertising legend George Lois, book designer Chip Kidd, lettering goddess Jessica Hische) and from big companies (speakers representing Google, Oprah Magazine, and Method Home). The conference was very broadly about design thinking—about how creativity can affect change, enhance communities, engage consumers and entertain audiences. As magazine publishers [and creative entrepreneurs], these are our goals.
Surprisingly, I found the most useful information for succeeding in publishing from two guys who make nice-smelling soap. Method, by combining eco-conscious products with innovative thinking and eye-catching design in a very traditional product category, has become an extremely successful company. Conference keynote presenter Eric Ryan (founder of Method) has a background in advertising; his friend (and co-founder) Adam Lowry was a climate scientist in his previous career. Theirs is an entertaining story [available in their book], honestly presenting the failures alongside the success.
So how does running a cleaning products company relate to publishing a magazine? It's all in the attitude and using the Method method of business thinking. Here are some of the most relevant points:
Create a product that people love and they will not only become dedicated customers but advocates for your brand. If you publish a magazine that people love (not just like), they can't live without it. The magazine [or your product] becomes part of their way of life—they identify themselves by it. They proudly tell others about it, they're invested in the content and they support it financially. My magazine is built on this notion; it was heartening to see this approach work so successful on a bigger scale.
Kick Ass at Fast
If you're not one of the "big guys" then you have to be better in other areas. For Method, this means that the relative small size of their company and manufacturing processes allows them to quickly seize opportunities of trends or customer feedback and implement change swiftly. For magazine publishers, it means that interacting and reacting with readers in real time is vital. You can no longer exist just in the realm of print—social media engagement is a vital and required offshoot of publishing content. Readers expect a dialogue; create a platform where this can happen and it will result in a stronger base for your publication. Smaller publications can achieve this much more easily than large publishing conglomerates, since readers can access us on a more intimate level.
Having fewer but more reliable customers is better than having lots of one-time customers. Method realized that their version of laundry detergent will never compete with "Tide", but they realized that their ideal customer will pay more for a product that they respect and understand. So fewer newsstand sales is fine if you have a strong subscriber base—a long term relationship is what magazines need to cultivate.
Win on Product Experience
Method is all about delivering an exceptional product experience. They take the mundane such as toilet bowl cleaner and reinvent the category, elevating the product design and packaging into something unique, useful and memorable. Whatever topic your magazine covers, yours should be the ultimate: the most reliable reference delivering the most intelligent expertise in the most engaging way possible.
To differentiate your product on the shelves, your design needs to be different. And not just different for the sake of different, but different for good reason. When Method launched its first product, they hired Karim Rashid, a superstar in industrial design, who created a bottle that not only looked unique, but one that functioned in a whole new way. Theirs was so innovative and unique on the shelves that other companies had to struggle to catch up to this new standard. Good design comes from good thinking. Make sure that the packaging of your magazine [or product] is in service of its content and that it recognizes the intelligence of its readers.