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Rotor & Wing: Editor’s Notebook

By James T. McKenna | January 1, 2008

New and Improved

You can see quite clearly that we have some new things in store for this new year.

This first issue of 2008 launches our redesign of Rotor & Wing. Now the redesign of a publication can be a very good thing. Done well, it gives the "book" a fresh look and readers a truly "new and improved" means of getting intelligence from the publication.

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That said, I’m a skeptic of redesigns. When someone says, "Let’s do a redesign," my inclination is to leave the room. Having been through a few myself and having observed colleagues go through their own, I’ve found that redesigns are often engineered by outside consultants who have figured they can make nice money by essentially regurgitating the latest fads in publication design.

How we mix our information sources to the best effect is something we’ve all just begun to pursue. This redesign is our contribution to that pursuit.

Not that there is anything wrong with consultants. It’s just that the ilk I’ve encountered on redesigns, almost without exception suffered, from two pretty significant shortcomings. First, they knew virtually nothing about the publication in their clutches, its subject matter, its reputation, or — most importantly — its readers. Second, they saw no point in educating themselves about those four things. The content of the pages is nearly irrelevant, they’d argue. This is a matter of design, and they were experts in design.

"Shut up," they seemed to say, "and watch a master at work."

"And pay no attention," I’d think, "to the little man behind the curtain."

The result of their efforts, besides fatter bank accounts for them, was a product that disregarded the subjects covered on the page and disrespected those reading it. They might just as well have strolled down to a newsstand, bought a copy of the "hottest" magazine of the day, ripped the logo off its cover, and pasted it onto their client’s publication. Very often, it seemed that was all the consultants did.

I’m going to shock you now and say we didn’t use consultants for this redesign. What you hold in your hands or read on your screen is the product of the small group of people who work on R&W day in and day out and have come to respect its content, its reputation, and its readers. They put a lot of thought into improving the magazine’s presentation of material while preserving its legacy. It helped that we undertook the project in R&W’s 40th anniversary year. Looking back through 40 years of monthly issues, we all got a better sense of the history of the rotorcraft industry (one that is very much a living history) and the role R&W and its readers play in that history. This isn’t a publication meant to be flipped through in a supermarket checkout line or a doctor’s office. You pick it up because you’re looking to get something out of it. If you’re a typical R&W reader, the odds are you’ve got something to contribute to the magazine as well.

So why change? There are good, practical reasons for doing so.

Among them, our collective readership is changing. More and more industry types who get R&W have never served in the military. They can’t tell you much about Vietnam except what they’ve seen on The History Channel. But they can talk for hours about PlayStations, Facebook, and blogs. This subset of readers receives and processes information in ways that don’t involve ink-stained fingertips. They’re no less (or more) important than any other group of our readers, but they do deserve a R&W that meets their information needs.

That leads to another reason for the redesign: we all are just in the earliest stages of an information revolution. That’s an overused phrase, but I don’t think we’ve begun to grasp the import of this revolution.

(Christmas is approaching as I write this. The run-up to it included an impulse buy of a GPS unit, after which my wife exclaimed, "It’s not going in my car. It’ll be a distraction." We’ll set aside the fact that I’m not the driver in the family who needs a GPS. That moment captured the disparity: we all have cell phones and satellite radios, but rely on paper maps when we’re lost and know so little of GPS that we’re afraid of it. Some of us, at least.)

Fusion is another overused phrase, but it’s a worthy concept when applied to achieving the most efficient mix of information sources for your needs. The pages in your hand, the screen on your computer (or BlackBerry or iPhone), the sounds from your ear buds, the images from your digital camera or HD TV are all simply means of conveying information. How we mix them to the best effect is something we’ve all just begun to pursue.

This redesign is our contribution to that pursuit. It visually aligns the information we convey in print with what we post on the Web. If you find something of value on the page, we hope you will come to know intuitively where to find more on the Web (or vice versa) because the space in either medium looks similar. Frankly, you’re not the only target of this "fusion" effort. We anticipate this visual framework will change the way we think about presenting information to you, from a mindset that says, "I’m a print guy, or a Web guy," to "What’s the best medium for conveying that information?," and even "How do all our media work best toward that goal?"

That’s a lot to digest. For now, look over this "new and improved" R&W and let’s know what you think, what works for you and what doesn’t, with our redesign.

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