BUSINESSMIAMI DITCHED EXECUTIVES ON ITS COVER. PROVOCATIVE ILLUSTRATIONS ARE IN THEIR PLACE. AND THE RISK IS PAYING OFF.
By Rochelle Broder-Singer
Good— really good — covers get people to open magazines.
And the challenge of creating really good covers is difficult when you are the alumni magazine of a business school. Let me put it this way: How many different ways can you pose people in business suits on the cover and hope it’s interesting?
Until seven years ago, the cover of BusinessMiami, the alumni magazine of the University of Miami School of Business Administration, most often bore a photograph of one or more of the alumni or faculty members featured in that given issue. Sure, we tried to keep it intriguing, posing the individual in a context associated with his or her specialty — say a search and rescue worker in uniform with her canine partners, or health care MBA students and alumni in their lab coats. But too often we had to work with business people in business attire in business settings. Yawn.
As much as our readers may love their alma mater, a photograph of an executive they don’t know or don’t recognize won’t compel them to open to page one.
What does get the attention of business school graduates? Juicy, complex business ideas – that’s what. As we prepared for a magazine redesign, we asked ourselves: How can we effectively represent business ideas on our cover?
When I joined the School of Business in 2009, one of my first assignments was to give BusinessMiami a full content and graphic redesign.
As with any redesign worth its weight, we started by collecting input from our readers and stakeholders. The school’s executive director of communications and I poured over a reader survey we had done using the famed CASE survey tool; we conducted interviews with constituents inside and outside of the school; and we researched current trends in university and consumer publications – from Harvard Business Review, Colombia Business School’s Hermes, and Boston University’s Bostonia to Inc., Fast Company, and Fortune. Our research, and in particular our survey results, revealed the No. 1 thing people want to read about in our magazine: current, relevant business ideas.
This was eye-opening for us. We had been giving our readers stories about our successful alumni, our smart students, and our top-tier faculty research. We were talking about us, and with the focus on the person over the topic.
What if we flipped this on its head? What if we enlisted our faculty and alumni to write about the timely business trends and issues about which they are experts, inviting them to share their knowledge and insights? The business topics, rather than the individuals, would move front and center. Instead of writing about alumnus Jose Acosta, president for Latin American operations and public affairs at UPS, we could share his insights on how a multinational company can navigate local markets.
In taking this fresh approach, we hoped that BusinessMiami would come to look and read more like a business magazine than a traditional university publication. Our goal was — and is — to be insightful, to initiate discussion, and to contain need-to-know business information.
This objective is perfectly in line with the magazine’s two-pronged mission: To engage with alumni, students, parents, donors, and faculty; and to brand the school as a leading institution to the business community, recruiters, potential students and their parents, and current and potential donors.
In the scope of our redesign, we identified that the cover could be a clarion call for each issue. It could best broadcast the message, “Hey, we’re tackling this important, relevant topic here!” But, it would have to focus on the central concept and tease it in a smart and compelling way. We decided that, in our case, photos rarely fit this bill. What can stand up to this challenge? Illustrations. A cunning artist can capture the essence of an idea brilliantly — and business concepts provide a rich set of ideas and metaphors for such an artist to play with.
We committed to producing illustrated covers in 2009, and we haven’t looked back.
Over these seven years, we have executed 12 covers in this vein, 10 using illustration and two using a type-only approach. If I may be so bold to say, each one is like a work of art. They are striking and smart, and they garner attention. We have received more reader comments about our covers than anything else in the magazine. Readers notice.
A LITTLE COURAGE
We’ve committed to this approach. But, it’s not always an easy path.
When you assign a photo shoot, you have a high degree of control. You can spell out where the photo will be taken, who will be in it, the background or backdrop, dress code, lighting. If you’re actually at the shoot, you have a good idea of the final product taking shape and can provide on-the-fly direction. During a two-hourlong photo shoot, the photographer can produce a half-dozen cover options for you to mull over.
An illustrated cover, on the other hand, is a delicate dance between editor, designer, and illustrator. Actually, it’s more like a trust fall. We have to deeply trust the illustrator to know our audience and the style of our magazine; to understand what makes a great cover; and most importantly, to get the cover story concept we’re after. There are simply fewer opportunities in this longer artistic process for us to weigh in as the concept takes shape. While we do have a process that helps ensure we’re all on the same page (see Our Process, below), the fact is this: When the artist delivers the final product, weeks after the initial assignment and very close to our closing deadlines, we have our fingers and toes crossed that the piece of art effectively conveys the concept — that it works.