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Sending RFPs to Magazine Design Firms

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

An Editors Only Q&A addressing magazine redesigns.

Q. My magazine hasn't had a redesign for ages. It looks dated. I want to send out a request for proposal (RFP) to design firms to get some quotes. Is there a time-tested form I can use to solicit proposals?

A. Few redesign projects are alike. As a result, what might be a good RFP for one publication could be totally inappropriate for another. But I'd like to recommend a process to follow for achieving the best result from your redesign project.

Aside from a tired look, are there any other problems associated with your current design? Has it been easy to work with issue by issue? Does it address the various situations you encounter given the variety of content you publish? Has it ever caused reader confusion? Make a list of all your design-related concerns.

Are you sure there aren't any other design problems? Have you had your current design evaluated by a professional recently? If not, this may be a good time to do so. This evaluation doesn't have to be a huge project. Send a typical issue to a designer and ask him or her to spend an hour on the phone with you critiquing it and making suggestions. That shouldn't cost too much.

In fact, if you are considering two or three design firms, ask each of them to give you their critique. You'll receive three distinct benefits from that. First, you'll get ideas for your laundry list of what the redesign project should entail. Second, you'll gain some insights into the designers' approaches. And third, you'll get a sense of whether you like working with the individuals involved.

At this point, you should be ready to construct your list of design concerns that must be addressed in the redesign.

Now describe the scope of the project. If yours is a print publication, what options will the designer have for making change? Trim size? Paper stock? Typography? If your publication is digital, what technologies can be employed (Flash, etc.)? Also describe your production workflow, as it may place some constraints on design options.

Then be specific about what you need designs for -- the cover, contents page, editorial, feature articles, departments, etc. Be comprehensive. How many examples of variants do you want for each?

Describe the skill level of the people who will be doing the issue-by-issue layouts. Will examples provide enough guidance, or will you need a specifications book to spell out the ground rules for using the templates? And, of course, indicate the kind of software and equipment that will be used in production. Be sure to determine the candidate designers' level of familiarity with those factors. Familiarity is one thing, but you should be looking for demonstrated proficiency.

What role will the designer play after delivering the design? Will there be training sessions for your production people? Designer critiques of how they're doing with the new design? You may wish to consider contracting out the production work to the design firm depending on your staffing and facilities. But I suggest that be considered as a separate project.

Provide a backgrounder that describes your audience demographics and psychographics. Attach copies of competing publications and website links. Find a way of evaluating whether each candidate designer will readily understand your audience, your market, and your content. John Johanek, a cofounder of Publication Design Inc. (www.publicationdesign.com), once wrote, "A designer's background is more than just job experience. Be sure to find out what his or her personal interests are as well, and check for compatibility."

So you should end up with two sets of specifications: one that includes all the particulars of the job you want design firms to bid on, and another to define what characteristics you are looking for in a designer.

Should you disclose your budget range for the project? Designer Lynn Riley (www.lynnrileydesign.com) recommends doing that. "It helps the candidate to tailor the scope of work to your budget," she points out. Lynn adds, "In other words, designers won't prepare a proposal that goes beyond the scope of what you need and thus charge for those unwanted services."

Keep in mind that a good redesign project involves a period of the designer getting to know your publication, market, and audience, and becoming acquainted with your staff, procedures, and organizational constraints. Then there is also a post-design period for your staff to become comfortable with and proficient at working with the new design. Be as specific as you can about how much time you want the designer to spend in these two periods.

Always keep in mind that there will undoubtedly be a need to refine the design once it is in use to account for unanticipated problems and to make improvements.

Finally, I strongly recommend that you think of the redesign as a means of improving communication with your readers. That should be your goal. Too often magazines approach redesigns as a means of giving the publication a fresh look. Make no mistake, fresh looks are good. But editors and publishers should take into account how the design will interact with the text to enhance the process of communication.

A pre-design focus group can often be a useful tool for getting feedback on how your current design is failing readers. Don't ask the participants to tell you what they want in a new design. That can often yield bad advice. Readers are not usually experts in how to remedy design problems. Let them tell you what they like based on what they see.

A focus group at the back end of the project isn't a bad idea, either. It can be a way of preflight testing prospective design approaches. Give participants concrete examples to react to. If possible, actually test whether the comprehension of the content is better with one design approach vs. another.

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