Broad Vision, Focused Effort Yield Chicago Reader’s New Look

“What the hell did they do?”

That’s the first thing Chicagoan Elizabeth Stroll thought, probably echoing a refrain heard across the city that day, as she suspiciously eyed her new issue of the Chicago Reader last Sept. 17. Meanwhile, Reader staffers at 11 East Illinois Street watched as Chicagoans performed their Thursday ritual, dropping by the lobby for the new week’s issue. “They would kind of do a double take,” remembers classifieds manager Brett Murphy. They’d reach for it, and then they’d recoil, asking, “Is this the Reader?”

Gone was the simplicity of the old black-and-white cover displaying little more than the opening paragraphs of the issue’s feature story. Instead, readers were confronted with bright oranges and yellows. They found artwork and teasers, divided into boxes, boasting not one but six different stories to be found inside. And at the top left, all that remained of the old flag — “Reader” spelled out in the familiar ’70s disco font — was the first letter, a backwards “R,” now supersized to 3 1/2 inches tall.

In its 33-year history, the Chicago Reader’s look had changed little, and what little had changed had done so gradually — despite a redesign 12 years ago. Even the paper’s distinct assembly — four independent sections, each like a paper unto itself, three of them enveloped taco-shell-style by the fourth — had evolved slowly. To keep pace with the city’s ever-expanding social calendar, the paper thickened and sections multiplied, all the while keeping the same black-and-white palette. The result was a heavy, gray, intimidating paper that proved difficult to navigate.

“It didn’t used to be that easy to look at the paper and go, ‘What should I do tonight?'” says editor Alison True. So when various Reader staff members began meeting a year ago to discuss the future of their paper, their challenge was to find a way, as chief theatre critic Albert Williams puts it, “to not just throw the phonebook at readers, and say you find the theatre. You find the music.” By March, everyone agreed that it was time for a radical change.

“It wasn’t meant to be an updating or a cleaning up,” explains True. “It was meant to be a new design, and we thought somebody who’s not mired in the problems of making our content work day to day would be coming at it with a fresh approach.” True scouted for talent by asking around, posing the question, “Who would be the most exciting person you could think of for this job?”

Among the industry professionals who responded was Jorge Colombo, a New York artist/designer and former Chicagoan. He suggested several people, including Marcus Villaca, one of his “favorite designers.” The Reader solicited proposals from a pool of talented people — none of which were duds, says True — but Villaca and Enric Jardí’s Barcelona firm, Jardí + Utensil, stood out from its competitors because of its background in magazine design. “We were hoping to create a hybrid of a magazine and a newspaper — serious, authoritative journalism in a highly disposable package that’s fun to look at,” says True.

For the next few months, True and art director Sheila Sachs worked closely with Villaca and Jardí. The 4,000 miles between the two companies proved not to be a problem, thanks to the ease of transferring digital files, while the seven-hour time difference proved surmountable not by technology but by the tenacity of Villaca, who proved, luckily, to be a night owl. Even now, two months since the redesign, it might be 1a.m. on a Saturday morning in Spain, but that doesn’t stop him from responding to Reader emails.

In the wake of the redesign, staff schedules are only just beginning to normalize. During the weeks when the Barcelona team was poring over “every page grid and every point of entry and every image crop” in the paper, some Reader staffers worked closely with Villaca while others picked up the slack. Many staff members attended committee meetings to stay apprised of the evolving design and to anticipate any potential negative consequences of proposed changes before they became part of the paper’s permanent design.

After three and a half months of long-distance collaboration, Villaca spent another four weeks in Chicago helping staff prepare for what turned out to be the most challenging part of the redesign — launch week. “If listings now … have different icons in them and need different style tags and flow differently into columns and formats,” says Publisher Michael Crystal, “all of those technical things really don’t occur … until you’re actually confronted with the deadline.”

The transition to color also proved more difficult than anticipated, causing problems for both the printer and the production crew. “All of a sudden people couldn’t email things that they traditionally had been able to email,” recalls art coordinator Elizabeth Tamny, who was inundated with “gigs upon gigs” of color files. “They’re so much bigger exponentially than black and white,” she says of the paper’s new color photos, “and we ran out of storage space really fast.”

Still, despite all the technical problems, the new Reader hit the streets Sept. 17, following only a couple of days’ worth of press to warn Chicago of the impending facelift. For some readers, the overhaul came not a day too soon. “They used cheesy outdated typefaces and it just was, you know, a bit of a mess,” says Todd Pruzan, a former Reader contributor and current managing editor at Print magazine. Now, he says, it’s “a little bit fresher and a little bit more fun.” For Elizabeth Stroll, a loyal reader who picks up her copy “on schedule every Thursday,” the change was less welcome. She laments that it just “doesn’t feel like the Reader anymore.”

Of course, that’s the way the Reader wanted it, and advertisers seem to concur. Angelo Varias, who has advertised in the weekly for 10 years, feels that the paper had begun to lose some of his furniture store’s target customers. “I thought that the image of the Reader was not the same now for new, young adults that are just entering into the marketplace. I think it was probably tired in their minds.” He’s happy with the upgrade, as is John Soss, vice-president of Jam Productions, one of the Reader’s largest accounts. “Seeing it now, it does really jump out a little bit more,” he says. “It grabs your eye … and that’s a lot more eyeballs who might potentially look at our ads.”

Nora Ankrum is a proofreader at The Austin Chronicle in Texas, who copy-edits the zine Two Note Solo in her spare time. She was a contributing writer for the San AANtonio Convention Daily in June.

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