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Harvard Business Review's creative director on the challenges of a fast-developing brand

As creative director at Harvard Business Review, James de Vries is the custodian of one of the world’s most powerful media brands. Here, he shares his philosophy for design and explains the challenges facing a brand moving rapidly on to new platforms. 

James de Vries ()

Photo by Peter Murphy

Tell us about your background and how you came to be involved with HBR…

I graduated from Sydney College of the Arts with the SCA Council Award for academic achievement in design. I then worked as a designer, illustrator and art director until starting my own design consultancy, de Luxe & Associates, in 1993. Having worked as an art director on magazines and in corporate design in the glory days of annual reports, I had developed an understanding of the power of editorial communication as a way of helping corporate communication. That combination helped me start a business that gave high-level design advice but also had the real craft to execute. One of our clients was Australian publisher Fairfax. Our first project for them was a magazine that has just reached its 20-year anniversary – the Australian Financial review. That was a new colour magazine amid pent-up demand for advertising, and it was a major success – so we worked on many other projects with them. We went on to design a weekend version of the Financial Review newspaper, to do a complete redesign of the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as a complete redesign of the Melbourne Age. So we worked with Fairfax for a long time and we had numerous other clients in the region, where we specialized in either creating or redesigning publications. Working with newspapers was very interesting because they are giant organisations – albeit a bit smaller now than they used to be – and what came out of that was an understanding that significant design effort is as much about culture change as it is about design craft and typographic detail. That, combined with the fact that a lot of our clients were business-oriented, made me very aware of that different area of design - designing with an organizational structure and the bigger systems of a company in mind. 

Where did your passion for design come from?

From high school I was totally interested in design. I always loved art and I was lucky to have one teacher who encouraged me to do graphic design. I ended up going to the local design school and was just astonished that you could spend all day doing something you loved. That was also the era when the coolest thing in the world was to design a record cover – and I guess that was kind of my ambition. Of course, the more you find out about these things, the more sophisticated your understanding is. I’ve always loved typography as a design element and that drew me to design as a way of creating and building meaning. Following an enjoyable experience at college, I pretty rapidly got involved in editorial publications – which are a nice confluence of my interests.

What led to you leaving de Luxe and moving across to HBR?

I’d had de Luxe up and running for quite a long time and we specialised in editorial and publishing redesigns and consulting. We had worked on a number of big projects around the region and then pitched for HBR and won the work. Once we had done the redesign, I went back to Australia for about a year. However, as part of the work we had done, we had advised HBR to appoint a creative director. To cut a long story short, I ended up taking up the invitation to join the company in that role myself. It was a role I was excited by and it happened to coincide with me looking to make some changes to my own company.

A phrase you use a lot is ‘editorial communication’. What do you mean by that and how is that at the heart of your philosophy?

For me, editorial and design have to be really close. It’s not always the case, but you really do get the best results when they are considered together and when the two work really closely. Like any of these sorts of things – and this is why it’s been really interesting to come and work at Harvard Business Publishing –there needs to be senior-level understanding and backing. Coming here was interesting because it was about taking the essence of an editorial brand and, from a position of strength, starting to venture into ‘what does editorial publishing mean in the future?’ The only other companies that were doing that at the time were doing so because they were on the run and making a desperate move to try and survive. It’s certainly been a privilege to work with a team that’s moving into the future in a slightly more ordered way.

Does the strength of the HBR brand and the position it holds within the market give you the luxury of being able to make more considered decisions – in a way not all publications can?

It does to an extent but, having said that, I don’t want it to sound like a completely rational process. The truth is that there is an awful lot of experimentation that goes on. There’s still a lot of adventure in the process. But, as a publication, Harvard Business Review has worked off a different model than, say, the mass newsstand publications in America, which has made it a lot more bulletproof in terms of things like the loss of circulation-based advertising. When a traditional newsstand magazine offers an annual subscription for US$5 a year, that’s kind of a low-cost distribution and it doesn’t lead to the same level of loyalty. I think there’s a very powerful psychological factor in paying a little bit more for something and it makes you more likely to read it. I would regularly travel from Australia to Asia on business trips and would gladly shell out $15 for an Airmail New Yorker or Vanity Fair – and read every word because I’ve paid such a premium for it.

How do you approach design at HBR?

My philosophy is that design is very much about the unique needs of the organisation and the audience. The way that we pitched was to pay real attention to what the organisation was saying – to really empathise with both the organisation and the audience – so that we could present in a style that felt like it was a bespoke fit for HBR. My philosophy as a designer is that a designer’s currency is ideas. Designers can always come up with more ideas and there is always high quality – but design is very much a relationship-based thing. I think we connected very well with HBR and the best design happens in collaboration, so that was a benefit. The bigger-picture job is to embed the power of design in the organisation and build design skills. Not everyone in the organisation has to be a brilliant designer, but design is a very powerful tool for articulating and implementing strategy decisions – and then helping to bring humanity to the experience of the brand. We started off designing the magazine but that has broadened out to being totally cross-platform, and my job has been to build a team and also to build an overall understanding of the value of design in the organisation so that we can contribute more powerfully to our strategic goals.

How important is consistency of design across your platforms and is it a challenge to join those up?

Given the rapid pace of change and the launch of new products and new platforms, design has become a bigger and more complex operation where we have to work even closer with everyone involved. And that’s an ongoing thing, because it’s very easy for organisations to chase every single opportunity and do an awful job of all of them. So we have to make very careful choices about where to put our effort and when – for some reason they won’t let me triple my staff! So what we have to do is build alliances and have the rest of the organisation understand when design is important and at what stage of the process. I think it’s fair to say that in my tenure here we have managed to bring design forward from very late in the process to the early, innovating part of the process.

HBR cover Sept 2015 ()

Above: Harvard Business Review September 2015

What are the challenges you face going forward?

There are always challenges around the number of potential things we could be putting our effort into and also around how we make sure we have the right strategic skills. I can’t have all coding people and I can’t have all traditional magazine graphic designers. I do need everyone to be smart enough to understand our content and to have empathy for our audience, though. That’s a base level. So that juggling act of building in-house skills and tapping into out-house skills to continue to maintain quality and a level of consistency is a challenge, as is making the most of whatever medium we choose to be in.

How do you find working within an organisation now, given that you were previously running your own business?

Look, it’s been a great change to work within an organisation. As an outsider, you have the privilege of not having to deal with the real problems within an organisation. But being inside, you develop an intimacy with it, and I think that has been a really good exercise to mix up my skills. I have come from a consulting background but being a staff member is really the only way this could have worked properly. You have to be tenacious and you have to be patient – and you have to work out what you’re going to put your energy in to fighting for. I’ve certainly learnt a lot and, having a small organisation where you’re worried about making sure the payroll is going to be made can be distracting. Here, it has been an absolute pleasure because there are so many smart and generous people around that it’s rewarding. It’s not all beer and skittles all the time, but it is great to be surrounded by people who are really committed and really interested.

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