robert festino had barely warmed up the art

robert festino had barely warmed up the art director’s chair at Runner’s World in November 2003 when editor David Willey dropped a 6,000-word story onto his desk. The story, a dramatic account of the tragic turns of Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar after their legendary duel in the 1982 Boston Marathon, needed an equally dramatic presentation.

Festino went cinematic, laying out soul-penetrating portraits—two of each runner—full-bleed, with a title and deck over four pages. Opposite page five, where the text finally starts, he cranked up the tension with an archival photo of one runner glancing back for the other as they neared the finish line under police escort. You can practically hear the sound of the roaring crowd.

“I thought, Wow!” says Willey, who had just hired Festino to redesign the magazine. “It was risky. It was ambitious—and it seemed that was exactly the kind of statement that we should be making.”

The new team practically shouted its intention to shake up the nearly 40-year-old title. In the process, it earned Adweek Magazines’ Creative Team of the Year honors for Festino, photo editor Don Kinsella and designer Eric Paul.

Festino’s design exemplifies the passionate, visual storytelling that has helped boost Runner’s World’s readership and revenue over the last year. Media buyers are taking a second look. “I like their redesign,” says Andrea Luhtanen, president of Haworth Marketing and Media in Minneapolis. “It’s a dramatic improvement over the outdated look it had. We would consider them for campaigns we may not have looked at them for a year ago.”

So smart is the book’s new look that it is appealing to more non-endemic advertisers. According to vp/publisher Andrew Hersam, auto clients including Ford Explorer, Land Rover and Mazda have come in since the redesign. (Automotive constitutes RW’s second-largest category, behind footwear.) Other advertisers that are either new or returning since the redesign include America Online, Kraft and Starwood-Westin Hotels.

Launched in 1966, Runner’s World had built a stable base of 520,000 readers when Willey took over in June 2003. Most of that following was made up of serious distance runners who subscribed for the shoe reviews, training tips and other how-tos of running.

But Emmaus, Pa.-based Rodale recruited Willey from Wenner Media’s Men’s Journal to build RW’s readership beyond hardcore runners.

“As a magazine junkie, I felt there was all kinds of potential for great storytelling,” says Willey, a runner and former RW subscriber who had let his subscription lapse because the magazine has become repetitious and boring.

But when he stepped in as editor, Willey wasn’t about to abandon the service mission of Runner’s World. On the contrary, he beefed up how-to information in the front of the book, tailoring more of that information to beginners and casual runners. He also added stories about nutrition and health. The changes have worked: Circulation for the second half of 2004, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, was 586,622, up 8.3 percent year over year. The rate base as of this past January is 600,000.

But Willey also had to deal with the magazine’s dated, provincial look. “I felt it didn’t capture the emotional stuff that’s around running—the joy, the pain, all that stuff,” he says. Running, he adds, is “a really visceral thing. I didn’t think the imagery or the design reflected that.”

While searching for a new art director, he was introduced to Festino, then deputy AD at Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly. Willey sent Festino issues of RW and asked what he’d do differently. He wondered how Festino would entice the casual browser at the newsstand—even nonrunners—to pick up the magazine.

“I’m not a runner,” Festino admitted to Willey. Still, he was up for the challenge. He started by studying ads for running shoes and other gear. “The ads were quiet and cool. They showed the form and beauty of running,” he says. And when those ads appeared in Runner’s World, they overwhelmed its ’80s-trade-journal design and mail-order-catalog-like photography.

“I thought, Why does [RW] look like this when things runners are associated with don’t look like this at all?” Festino recalls. “I wanted to give it a level of coolness.” He started sketching ideas that were fresh and compelling, and even rewrote headlines “that were better than the ones we had printed,” Willey recalls. “He just got it. He’s a very story-oriented designer.”

Willey’s reservation about Festino, 30, was that he had a lot less experience than other candidates for the job—and no magazine redesign experience at all. “That was scary,” Willey says. But he went with his gut, put Festino on the masthead, and stood back.

Festino wasted no time changing the photographic aesthetic of the magazine. He scrapped the smiling- runner-with-lean-body-on-a-beach formula and started hiring photographers who did conceptual celebrity portraiture for magazines like, well, Entertainment Weekly. “Photographers and illustrators can have the same response that I did [to RW]: This is different from what I usually do, and I can have fun with this,” Festino says.

First up was photographer Steve Bonini, whom Festino commissioned to shoot portraits for the story on Beardsley and Salazar. For the cover of the same issue, he hired John Huet to photograph 800- and 1500-meter champion Jennifer Toomey. The image wasn’t about her runner’s physique—it’s a study of her quiet, determined spirit.

“I thought the people in this sport should be elevated” by the photography, Festino says.

Faced with the job of doing a cover-to-cover redesign, however, Festino needed the help of a photo editor—a luxury the previous art director didn’t have. So he called Don Kinsella, a SmartMoney photo editor who happened to be on the same visual frequency as Festino.

Working practically around the clock on the re-design, which debuted with the April 2004 issue, they began a collaboration that’s unusual between art directors and their subordinate photo editors. “He’d turn to me and say, ‘What do you think about this? Does this look good?'” recalls Kinsella, who was unaccustomed to that kind of respect from art directors. “And I’m thinking, The art director is asking me if this looks good?”

Kinsella’s primary task was assigning photography, of course, and he began lining up a stable of photographers not known for their sports and fitness work. They included Dan Winters, Chris Buck and Joshua Paul.

When the New York Marathon rolled around last fall, for instance, Kinsella wasn’t going to bore readers with the usual race pictures. So he called Mark Peterson—known for his irreverent images of New York society parties—for a behind-the-scenes take on the elite runners right before the race. “We needed something with a point of view,” Kinsella says. And he got it: Peterson’s images were brimming with surprising moments and detail. One of his shots featured British racer—and women’s winner, it would turn out—Paula Radcliffe looking out a bus window as runners headed toward the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the race starts.

“I’m not going to talk down to the audience,” says Kinsella. “I’m going to give them credit for being in this world, for being visual people.”

Meanwhile, Festino has done the same with the redesign, taking advantage of the visual literacy of readers—not just to elevate the editorial content but to capture the world of running.

“I got rid of everything that was hokey,” he says. The mercy killings included the old, sprawling logo and “Miles,” the runner icon who formed the logo’s apostrophe. Festino drew a new logo with a cleaner, more open typeface emphasizing the word Runner’s and reducing the word World to fine print. (The brand was “too big” to change the name outright, Festino notes.)

He also changed the architecture of the 40-page service section in the front of the book, called Warmups, to make it easier to navigate. The section now opens each month with its own minimalist table of contents, adjacent to a big, arresting, double-truck photo that’s related to one of the Warmups stories. The photo signals a definitive beginning for the magazine following letters to the editor, masthead and other housekeeping functions.

“I’m trying to set a mood for the book, and it’s an opportunity to show some nice photography,” Festino explains. The large photo also helps balance the pace of the Warmups stories, most of which are single-page and packed with information.

To give readers visual reference points and to distinguish Warmups from the feature well, Festino added colored stripes to the top and bottom of every page. Each subsection sports stripes of a different color.

The stripes, Festino explains, were inspired by running shoes. “Running shores are probably the most progressively designed objects out there,” he says. “They have all these stripes and little bands. I kind of took that stuff and used that visual vocabulary.”

At the same time, Festino incorporated charts and illustrations to make detailed information more accessible and to give the magazine more texture.

Whereas the magazine used to run a series of photos showing models on a white backdrop to illustrate exercise techniques, it now uses illustrations “like airplane safety instructions,” Festino says. That not only saves space but looks cleaner and more contemporary.

For “On the Road,” a column spotlighting running routes across the globe, Festino replaced descriptive text with maps that actually outline routes and locate major landmarks. Readers can tear out the maps and take them on their runs. That change made Willey very happy. “It used to drive me crazy,” he says, “to have to read 1,500 words to find out what the best run in, say, Chicago is.”

With the new design architecture worked out, Festino now hands some of the front-of-the-book layout work to designer Eric Paul, a recent graduate who joined Runner’s World last summer. Paul also has been given responsibility for the Gear section in the back.

That has freed up Festino to spend more time creating some remarkable visual storytelling in the feature well. For the July 2004 issue, Kinsella commissioned Chris Buck to shoot Jerry Lindgren, a ’60s running sensation who descended into obscurity after being overcome by his demons. Buck captured both Lindgren’s sadness and his manic edge, and Festino played the images with type in a way that practically conveyed Lindgren’s life story.

Just hitting newsstands, the April issue features a story about two brothers who made a friendly bet on who was the better runner. One is a type-A guy, the other type-B. Festino opens the story by juxtaposing two full-page, environmental portraits in a comic-book motif.

It’s smart, funny and pitch-perfect—and another example of how Festino and Co. have turned a successful but uninspired running magazine into a model of first-rate photography and design. David Walker is senior editor of Photo District News.