Feb 21, 2013 By Omar Mouallem

Responding to Changing Technology: A Conversation with Robert Newman

[Originally published January 29, 2013]

For the cover of Fortune’s 75th anniversary issue in 2005, design director Robert Newman and his team shot the Time-Life building in New York with selected office lights on to form the number 75.

Of his many covers – those with such mastheads as Reader’s Digest and Real Simple – this is his favourite. Not because of its end result, but the process. “Time Inc. had these energy-saving office lights, so they automatically go off in every office if there’s no motion,” he recalls. “We had to put teams of people on each floor. They had to run up and down the halls and into each office to keep the lights on.”

Sadly, Fortune’s audacity was lost. “People really slept on that cover because they assumed it was done digitally.” If he were doing it today, things would be different. “We’d make content,” he says. “Because it’s a great story, we’d document both the team turning on the lights and the team taking the photographs. That’s a fun magazine-making story that readers would enjoy.”

It’s an example of how the creative and brand consultant, and 2013 Alberta Magazines Conference keynote speaker, sees opportunity in uncertain times. The March 14 and 15 conference will be his first time in Alberta since a road trip across Canada a few years ago.

In addition to the keynote luncheon entitled The Future of Publishing is Now, he’s preparing a seminar called Design 411: The Ultimate, Full-Service Q&A Session. “It will be the ultimate resource session for art directors – these will be answers to questions that are really on people’s minds.” Robert is seeking audience questions for the workshop, so you’ve still got a chance to get answers from this decades-long magazine veteran (contact ampa@albertamagazines.com)

Of course, there are some questions he knows you’re going to ask. “Even here in New York, everyone’s asking the same questions.” The top question, he says, is “How can I deal with changing technology?” And more often than not, publishers are coming to the wrong conclusions.

The industry is positioned to make the most formative changes in his lifetime, he says, and yet the reaction hasn’t been to invest in the future but to retrench. “If (magazine professionals) want to see how this is going to work out, I can show you exactly how this is going to work out. Because there’s another publishing industry that took this exact same approach, and that was the newspaper industry.”

Point taken. But even those who are investing in magazine apps are making mistakes, including himself. At first, he thought tablet editions offered unlimited opportunities but, in fact, the small scale and large type mean the opposite. “What we learned by trial and error – and a lot of error – is you really have to go for more simple presentation on (tablets).”

For most magazines this means saying goodbye to hyper-design, which he calls a symptom of “when editors don’t have any other way to come up with engagement.” He adds, “Most art directors really dread that, because what makes design work is an engaging headline or a great image, or the way they interplay on the page.” Some things never change, after all.