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Newsletter Make-over Clinic | DTG Magazine

A friend in the user group community recently asked if I critique her newsletter.
I agreed, and she agreed to let me write it up as an article. This is by no means the full clinic, but rather the beginning approach to any make-over I might conduct. We'll show you our initial observations, and a few possible improvements. You're welcome to follow along. . . .

Newsletter Make-over Clinic

The newsletter original is already in publication, with a happy readership from the Permian Macintosh User Group. Cerise, the editor has no formal design or publishing background, and is doing a superb job of writing and editing the content. Let's help fine-tune some of the visual aspects.
While this newsletter "MacPUG Papers" is directly targeted at the paid membership of a computer club, many of my observations and suggestions can be applied to all newsletters. My primary objective here is the initial visual appeal of the newsletter and not content. She's a competent writer and editor so I'm confident they don't need my expertise in that area.

One of the most frequent problem areas I encounter in the publishing field is when editors, writers and, yes even business people are expected to turn out a good newsletter. If my car isn't running right, I take it to the mechanic. I don't expect the car wash to fix the motor any more than I expect the mechanic to give it a wash and wax. Rare are the instances where the writer or editor is also a good designer and/or typographer. Yet they're almost always restricted by the software they use, the availability of good clip art or images, and the time to think about the details.

I'm going to restrict myself to just the initial visual and organizational points in this critique. We could spend days talking about minutiae and the array of options involved in a full scale makeover. What I'll do is share some quick and easy areas where a simple fix will make a big difference.

Since the front page is the most important part of a newsletter, lets look at just four things that can really perk this publication.

1 - The Banner (or "Nameplate)
2 - The hierarchy of importance
3 - Weight and positioning of anchor elements
4 - Reader eye flow.

Now, let's look at some considerations for all newsletters, and mix those with some observations about this particular one.

Continue . . .

Back to the Design Department Front Page

About the author:
Fred Showker conducted Newsletter Make-Over Clinics all over country for Dynamic Graphics Educational Foundation, In-House Graphics Magazine, Multicom, and other training providers. He has conducted dozens of custom publication make-over clinics for such clients as Southwestern Bell, Chicago Harald Newspapers, National Teachers Association, The Special Olympics, Byrd Papers, Sysco Corp., Merck, and various departments of the Federal Government. Newsletter make over clinic, page 2

What do we observe?

1 - The Banner

The Banner of any newsletter walks a tightrope. It must always be strong enough to brand the publication and get it noticed, yet speak softly enough so it doesn't overwhelm the page. It should communicate the publication and organization's purpose without overstating the point. (At this point you may want to pull up a separate window with the original newsletter for comparison. Resize it so you can still continue reading on this page)

Sidebar: Always remember that white space can organize visual objects or call attention to them through isolation. Decide which you want it to be, then make it work for you -- not against you.
___ In these two examples, not wanting to do away with the current concept and feeling, the apple could be solid, and the "papers" look a little more like papers. After playing with some type, and the relative positioning of the logo with the headline, it became obvious that the logo would retain it's integrity even if we didn't show all of it. This gave us a perfect opportunity to break the banner from the content well.
In MacPUG we see the banner is causing some problems to the other parts of the page. First, when the 'apple' dives so deeply into the content well it calls too much attention to itself, and even creates an uncomfortable white space or "hole" in the layout. Squinting at the layout, or viewing it slightly out of focus, reduced, reveals the hole. This can pull the reader's eye.

I believe the relative importance of the graphic is over stated in this layout. It could easily be reduced and not lose any implied importance.

Additionally, the Banner needs to be separate from the content well. Here, the 'logo' seems to suggest that it is part of the lead story. It also disturbs the heads of all three columns, causing them to stagger across the page. Column heads should be evenly aligned.

2 - The hierarchy of importance

As the banner pushes the column heads out of alignment, it causes another problem. Which article should we start with?

In the "Newsletter Rules" supplement to this article I outline the kinds of editorial content a newsletter contains, and the relative importance those articles should hold. (The "Rules" supplement is published in the December, 2001 PDF issue of DT&G.

Without prompting, I had to assume the "October" article is the lead, or feature. I surmised that simply because it was the first story. However being pushed lower than the image of the compass, I'm drawn to believe the "President Missing" is the feature. Now the reader is subconsciously confused.

Note how the triangle of images; the apple, the oak leaf, and the compass, all compete for importance in the arrival space of the newsletter. They seem to have somewhat equal weight, and therefore shout equally for my attention. Chances are, I'll go for the compass simply because of the pointing devices.

Additionally, there's the problem with the stem of the oak leaf pointing off the page to the left. We would strive to have the reader understand the parts of the front page, and instinctively begin tumbling into the content flow immediately upon arrival. We want to help them get at the information, and get at it with minimum work and frustration.

The editor must declare what the feature article will be, then make the others subordinate. We do that by position on the page, and any visual devices used.

3 - Weight and positioning of anchor elements

By anchor elements we mean things that appear in every issue like the Masthead and the table of contents. These elements are secondary and expected by the reader, so they don't need primary positioning.

I won't comment on the fact that the boxes don't line up. We'll blame that on a mechanical problem at printing time. (Grin)

When evaluating the weight and positioning of anchor elements we have to ask how we want the reader to proceed. In this case, both boxes form a rigid and obvious wall down the right side of the page. This makes them very important. They actually stop the reader flow into the content well.

Perhaps these might be better to the left, as a starting point, or beneath the lead copy... which brings me to the next point...

4 - Reader eye flow.

Where you put things on the page, and how they flow is a critical consideration in any publication. Remember that the reader's eye falls somewhere in the upper, left-hand quadrant of the page, then instantly does a lazy 'Z' shaped scan to the lower right, then returns to the upper half of the page (if sufficiently stimulated) to begin reading. They'll always do that, you can count on it.

So, we're challenged in arranging visual and editorial elements to support that eye flow. We also have to support gravity, because the eye always falls, or wants to move down the page.

Reader eye flow is also critically dependant on a number of wordsmithing rules. The typography in this newsletter needs some refinement to promote reader eye flow, but I'll get to that later.
Once again, if you squint at this front page, your eye is drawn to the darkest areas. Suddenly we see an implied flow from the Apple, curving through the little news guy, and landing on the windmill thing at the bottom right. Why are we there??? Do we want to be there? No. Do we even have any idea at all what the windmill thing has to do with the newsletter? No. But we find ourselves at the exit point of the page, ready to go to the next page.

Arriving on page two presents a real problem because there's no apparent visual clue as to where we came from, or where we're supposed to go. If we follow our natural instincts and begin reading at the upper left hand column, we jump into the middle of a paragraph.

So, there are the initial gut observations from the first look. Now, let's kick around some ideas.


By isolating the articles, and giving them an order of priority, we automatically introduce order into the layout. This makes the reader feel more comfortable, and helps promote the feature story.

Here the reader's eyeflow is supported. Page entry devices do exactly what they're supposed to do. The normal movement from the logo down, puts the reader's eye in a position to move fluidly into (#2) the table of contents well, or the (3) actual feature story.
Newsletter make over clinic, page 4

Makeover #2

Now I feel compelled to move things around again

This time let's run the articles horizontal rather than in two columns. This serves two purposes.

First, by the use of a full 12 point type for the text, I suspect the editor is being sensitive to perhaps a more mature audience. Since readability is of paramount importance, I'll leave that alone for the moment and deal with the exact content that came with the newsletter.

With the longer line lengths we allow the type to 'fit' more evenly, and thus take less actual space. We also beefed up the heads a bit... in the original they were too much like the body copy, and therefore not good landmarks.

This version lets each article offer the reader multiple entries without competing with each other, and gives a more logical visual organization to the page.

Keep in mind, I haven't really changed anything yet -- only moved around what was already there. (One thing I strive to do in the early stages of a makeover.) Also keep in mind this is just one of the many solutions that could be applied to the project.

Let's analyze a major issue that has resolved itself during this process.

We've built what could be a template grid for the rest of the publication. This is a one or two column "content" well, and a narrow column to the left for anchor material. This kind of template could now be applied to the rest of the newsletter.

Let's jump to the inside for a moment and see how that might be put to work for us.

Now, lets take a look at what happens when the reader goes inside to continue reading. . .