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A new look for new times

Denominational magazines must move forward or fall behind

By David Wilson

One of the leading lights in magazines during their golden era in the 1950s and ’60s was a former cartoonist named Allen Hurlburt. As creative director of Look magazine from 1953 to 1971, Hurlburt presided over breathtaking layouts that elevated magazine design to an art form.  

Unable to compete with television, Look folded in 1971. Hurlburt had these cautionary words for other art directors and the editors who employ them: “No art director can afford to take his perception and design approach for granted, and no editor can afford the comfortable luxury of editorial formulas and a fixed format.”

It has been more than four years since this magazine had a major facelift. In that time, our universe of United Church readers has shrunk and competition from the digital world has grown. It has become quite clear for denominational magazines everywhere that there’s no such thing as standing still anymore. Either you move forward or you fall behind.

Consider the new-look Observer you’re holding a move forward. But forward to where? We pondered that question at length. Our research shows our readership is educated and keen to be challenged intellectually and spiritually. Our experience shows our readers want a magazine that explores the faith dimensions of issues overlooked in the mainstream media or not accorded the breadth and depth they deserve.

For many years, The Observer has staked out a claim as a place for intelligent conversations about faith, justice and ethical living today. The changes we’ve made are designed to further anchor the magazine in that niche. It’s a niche that people in the United Church will instinctively recognize as home, but I think it can also be a place where people who profess an affinity for the values of the United Church but don’t attend regular worship will find sanctuary and inspiration.

Overall, the new design of the magazine makes it easier to navigate while giving it a more contemplative feel. The Observer is now divided into three distinct sections. The opening pages contain general-interest items, including our monthly interview and the best-read section of the magazine, the letters to the editor. The last third of the magazine focuses specifically on the United Church — trends, news, congregational profiles, how-to stories, opinion and reflections. The centrepiece of the new design is an expanded features section where you’ll find more in-depth articles by Canada’s best religious journalists.

Some long-running columns and departments have given way to new ones designed to bring fresh energy to our pages. We’re using new headline fonts and a new, easier-to-read typeface for our articles. Most significantly, we’re creating more breathing room in our layouts with the use of white space around type and images. I like to think of it as a blank canvas that invites readers into a thoughtful relationship with the content they are experiencing.

Redesigning a magazine is a long, painstaking process. I’m indebted to art director Ross Woolford and managing editor Jocelyn Bell for pursuing this project diligently on top of their regular duties. Everyone at The Observer is committed to bringing you the best magazine we can, and all of us hope you see this redesign as a step forward, too.

• I’m pleased to welcome Chelsea Temple Jones to our editorial team for the next year while Jocelyn Bell is away on maternity leave. A doctoral student who also holds a master’s degree in journalism, Chelsea will be working closely with Caley Moore, who becomes acting managing editor during Jocelyn’s leave.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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