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Magazine Report: Creative team of the Year - Pure and Simple

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The team behind Real Simple fashions a seamless merger of form and function

Editors at Real Simple magazine found themselves in a jam one afternoon as their November issue was about to go to press. A feature story had fallen apart, leaving a gaping hole. So they turned to style director Elizabeth Mayhew, who had recently joined the staff, and asked her to come up with a new story idea overnight.

"I went home and thought, Well, it would be Thanksgiving, I'm cooking dinner, lots of people are coming over." Then it dawned on her: What about a centerpiece for the table? "I came up with centerpieces you can make in a minute, with things you can buy in a grocery store." That turned into the cover story—"The easiest Thanksgiving ever: 60-second centerpieces"—featuring sensuous photographs of objects such as lemons, grapes, carnations and nuts arranged in glass bowls.

Such features are the foundation of a deceptively simple and surprisingly successful formula. Time Inc.'s Real Simple shows readers easy ways to solve life's mundane problems, edit the clutter out of their lives and save time. In less than four years, total circulation has grown to 1.5 million, including nearly 400,000 in newsstand sales.

Real Simple's design has everything to do with those numbers. With its seamless merger of form and function, the magazine has distinguished itself among women's titles. Its elegant, minimalist design isn't unique, but it radiates a clarity, warmth and ease that other magazines are scrambling to imitate. For that achievement, Mayhew, creative director Robert Newman and photography editor Jean Herr have been named Adweek Magazines' Creative Team of the Year.

"Things coalesced for us in 2003," says Newman, who was recently named design director at Fortune, a sister Time Inc. publication. (The magazine was lauded in these pages last year, as well, when the publisher, editor and consumer marketing director were named Executive Team of the Year.) A veteran of such titles as Vibe, Details and Entertainment Weekly, Newman was between jobs in 2001 when he ended up freelancing for Real Simple. "I didn't think I would stick around, because I didn't think I was that interested," he says. "But people were passionate about this magazine and I got caught up in it."

He joined the staff in October 2001. Real Simple was finding its focus at that time, having survived a rocky launch six months earlier. The magazine's early issues struck Madison Avenue as anti-consumerist in their austerity. Critics derided articles on subjects like cleaning the toilet. Martha Stewart, whose own troubles were, at that time, still beyond the horizon, dismissed the fledgling competitor as "Real Stupid."

Convinced by reader surveys that they were onto something, however, Time Inc. bosses stuck with it. "We know what women's top 200 problems are, and they don't include, 'Which Chanel suit looks good on me?'" says Mayhew, a working mother and fervent evangelist for the magazine and its aims. "It's almost as though what we do is charitable—like people going to church to be closer to God, people come to Real Simple every month to be closer to organized."

During the 18 months in which Mayhew, Newman and Herr worked as a team, their goal was to hone the design of the magazine to reflect and drive its mission. That meant making it easy to read, since readers lack time. But it also meant creating a look that was warm, intimate, beautiful—and calming.

Real Simple managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop says the design of the magazine "is so in line with what we need to give to readers—both beauty and usefulness…It's so clear and distinctive, and fundamentally what we are." The editor adds that the design group "are incredible problem solvers. They know how to think inside the box and outside the box—and when to go in which direction."

The DNA of the magazine's original design, by Robert Valentine, is still very much evident in its minimalism and elegance. The general principles of Real Simple's photographic style also remain unchanged. The emphasis is on natural light and real people (the magazine has always been a celebrity-free zone). And every picture is intended to convey a single message, "not a bunch of them," explains Herr, who has been with the magazine since the start.

"In the beginning, it was hard to find photographers who understood what we wanted," she says. Photographers who helped Real Simple define its sensibility include William Waldron, Josh Paul and John Dolan.

"One of the first signs that we were onto something was when [photographer] David Prince told us his advertising clients were coming to him and saying, 'I want pictures that look Real Simple,'" Herr recalls.

It is a style of photography that's anything but cutting edge, and purposely so. "It's direct and human, and it stands in contrast to the cold, distant style" of other magazines, observes Newman. "That is what art directors tend to like, not what real people like. Jean's genius is in figuring out how to create photographs that are intimate and direct."

Newman's mandate, meanwhile, was to help stabilize the magazine by bringing more consistency to the covers and improving the presentation of photos and graphics. He accomplished both tasks through painstaking attention to detail.

"The biggest thing I did was to constantly work on ways to organize the material," Newman explains. "It's more than fonts and white space—it's information architecture. It's how the design works with the story."

The magazine's how-to and advice features are exhaustively researched, boiled down to the bare essentials, then presented mostly as captions and summaries. Page margins are reserved for concise, bulleted sidebars. Text and photos are presented in grids for easy navigation. Photos are adjacent to the information they illustrate. (Food photos appear right next to recipes, so readers can connect words to visuals without flipping pages.)

"Practical" is the operative word for Real Simple's covers, as well. Newman points to a large, framed reproduction of the April 2002 cover on his office wall. With a Zen-like image of four flowers in separate glass vases and the cover line "Make over your rooms: easy ideas from $30 to $350," the issue was one of Real Simple's biggest newsstand sellers.

"That cover was an epiphany," Newman says. "We discovered that readers like covers with a practical idea connected directly to an image, and that they respond to beauty." It's a lesson that has since informed every image in the magazine, not just covers. But the challenge was getting it consistently right. And that's where Mayhew's talents come into play.

At Real Simple, Mayhew's job is to edit out the clutter and elevate the ordinary. "People don't live with cement floors and mid-century modern furniture," she says. "They live eclectic: a few antiques, some new stuff, a little Pottery Barn, some Crate and Barrel. It's all about putting it together in a fresh way."

When it comes to photography inside Real Simple, Mayhew guards vigilantly against the improbable—a pair of slippers most women wouldn't think of wearing, for example. She also works to pare all gratuitous information out of photos.

Meanwhile, how-to stories are scripted with storyboards to illustrate the important points of the text. A story on how to paint a room, for instance, shows the process in a series of pictures that "make it so obvious it's almost embarrassing," Newman says.

Despite their utilitarianism, images radiate warmth. Features are set apart with an opening shot that sets a mood, and stories adhere to a color palette reflecting the subject or season. Mundane objects, such as a kitchen sink on the cover of the April 2003 issue, are presented as objects of beauty.

Careful attention to design details has paid off. Last year, Real Simple won a gold medal for overall design from the Society of Publication Designers. Vanessa Holden, Real Simple's new creative director, by way of Donna Hay magazine in Australia, says the magazine's look and feel are subject to constant reassessment. "The architecture [of Real Simple] is highly evolved," she says. "It's now resolved in terms of what it looks like and what it represents. But now, what is that as an experience, instead of as a magazine?"

Real Simple isn't without its critics. Some will describe it as having the heart and soul of a direct-mail catalog. Mayhew's response: "Is that so bad? The point is to sell the magazine."

And sell it does. While Real Simple didn't introduce elegant minimalism to magazine design, Newman, Mayhew and Herr have shown the world how to make the style work.

David Walker is a senior editor at Photo District News.