Southern Living

More often than not, magazine redesigns are an exercise in futility. Brighter colors, larger photos, a few extra sidebars... isn't this pretty much the publishing equivalent of throwing the same exact ingredients into a stew, but in a slightly different order? If you really want to get readers to pay more attention, I suggest incentivizing them with a free Mr. Coffee doohickey, like banks used to do.

With its April issue, Southern Living becomes the latest title to cruise on down redesign boulevard, though the mag refers to the exercise as a mere "freshening [of] its graphic design." They seem quite eager to yap about it, as witnessed by a before-and-after package that landed with a muted thump upon my doorstep. It contained the usual breathlessly worded press release ("dynamic content," "exquisite recipes," etc.) and copies of both the April 2005 and April 2006 issues. However, it also contained a dynamically, exquisitely appended guide to the April 2005 issue, appointed with not one, not two, but eight purple post-it notes. Ooh, catchy colors. I find myself drawn to them like a moth to the flame, or a Marlon Brando to the ham-and-cheese.

< Ignoring the obvious question--why the person in charge would specifically call my attention to the 2005 issue, rather than the freshened-up 2006 one--I figured this represented a primo opportunity to test my magazine-redesigns-are-bunk theory. Hence the following post-it-note-by-post-it-note comparison of Southern Living circa April 2005 and Southern Living circa April 2006.

Purple post-it note one: The "Features" table-of-contents page: The 2006 edition boasts a slightly narrower font, plus the "On Our Cover" blurb finds itself freed from the tyranny of a green box. The photo layout and sizing remains about the same. Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note two: The "Contents" table-of-contents page: The bricky travel/gardens/homes/foods story listing survives the facelift, as does the photo motif: both issues contain shots of a water-themed travel scene, flowers, an entrée and a home interior. The 2006 edition spreads the four photos out, as opposed to stacking them down the left side of the page. As Keanu Reeves once famously opined, "Whoa." Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note three: "Food Finds": 2006 adds visually catchy mini-headlines, plus an extra stamp-sized photo. 2005's sidebar boasts a yellowish background tint; 2006 goes with orange. My colorblind dad would have some serious, serious issues with this decision. Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note four: "Garden Letters": "Editor's Notebook" has been redubbed "According to Steve" and relocated from the top to the bottom-righthand corner of the page. I'm not sure why this merited a post-it note. Maybe I'm supposed to be paying attention to the Mr. Goodwrench ad on the other side of the page? Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note five: the "Come Home and Relax" feature: For the sake of this exercise, I'll compare this with the 2006 version's "Fresh, Breezy Style" piece. The latter boasts fewer and slightly larger pictures, plus a "Get This Style" box o' tips. Both feature clunky, non-involving leads ("Great design stands the test of time, as showcased by this home that has survived many storms since it was built in the 1840s" versus "Choose the right location, and you don't have to forego a great garden when you build a home at the beach"). Design-wise, each story draws attention to a single word in its title: 2005 uses a scripty font for "Relax," while 2006 goes the italicized route for "Breezy." I get paid to notice these things. Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note six: "Decorating Step-By-Step": Welcome mats or galvanized buckets--choose your poison. 2006's modular photo layout, however, is unquestionably, indubitably more pleasing to the untrained eye. Huzzah! We have a winner! High-fives all around! Advantage: 2006.

Purple post-it note seven: "From Our Kitchen": 2006 features more color, an extra teensy photo and less text. I'm getting bored now. Advantage: none.

Purple post-it note eight: "Healthy & Light": Gustatory snob that I am, I prefer 2005's penne with butternut squash sauce to 2006's rosemary green beans with lemon rind and some other junk. Graphically, 2006 doesn't cram every inch of space with words words words everywhere, though 2005's "Making Smart Choices" box is missed. Advantage: 2006.

Wow--talk about a barn burner. The freshened-up 2006 Southern Living triumphs over the 2005 version by a staggering margin of two wins to none, with six ties... and my redesigns-don't-add-diddly theory withstands one of the most rigorous challenges in the recent history of comparison shopping. So there you have it. Thanks for playing along at home. Good night, and good luck.

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