Interview with Lynn Gosnell by Shane Shanks

So many colleges claim to be “like no other.” Yet their magazines come across as “like everyone else.” Following a redesign with Zehno, Rice University’s updated magazine leans in on the school’s unconventional personality, vibrant residential college culture and research mission. Readers are taking notice.

With its offbeat structure and newsstand pop — plus an unapologetic sprinkling of nerd chic — the revamped Rice Magazine embraces the school’s unconventional brand. Instead of serving up middle-of-the-road content for anyone (even if they’ve never heard of Rice), the new magazine gives devoted readers the insider’s take on campus today.

We asked editor Lynn Gosnell how to build a magazine that is brand-aligned (but not boring), research-focused (but not dry) and visually striking (but not overdone).

Getting started

Shane Shanks: You had a strong magazine before. So what was the driving force behind the redesign?

Lynn Gosnell: A thoughtful redesign and update had long been a goal of our small staff, which is led by Alese Pickering, our super talented art director, and me. We wanted the print magazine to look more modern and be a little more open and interesting. We wanted to build on past successes to capture the vibrancy of a close-knit campus community as well as generations of alumni.

We also wanted to experiment with the way we tell stories — by using more illustration, infographics, different writing styles and voices. We needed a format that would be a good home for them all. It’s been really fun to experiment with these different ways to tell stories. I admire magazines that do that, and think readers love variety, too.

How is the prototype we built together holding up?

We think it’s holding up very well — both as a foundation for ideas and a platform for experimentation. Our readers are getting used to seeing the “mini-article” types that we invented — and they like that we’re featuring additional alumni profiles in what’s been classified as a “university magazine.”

People have responded to the covers — and the cover features. We run a survey after every issue, and the common reader response is: “Oh, that’s different.”

Different in a good way?

In our surveys, we used to get really low percentages on this question: Did the cover make you want to open and read the magazine? People would answer, “Not so much. We’d read the magazine anyway.” Really?! And yet we were spending so much time thinking about and choosing the covers! I think we’ve converted some of the “cover neutrals” with our new approach to the cover and traveling nameplate. And because the cover opens our first feature, we — Alese, most especially — spend a lot of time thinking about each issue’s cover.

RESEARCH ON THE RISE

Rice is a research powerhouse. How did you handle your research stories before the redesign — and how do you handle them now?

We relied on narrative to handle all of them — each one a little news brief. After the redesign, we’re still doing narrative stories about research, but we’re also incorporating more infographics in each issue. It’s fun, and we have a Rice alum who used to work at National Geographic doing many of these infographics for us. She’s a scientific journalist and artist — the engineers love it.

In the redesign, we created a new section called Wisdom that’s based on the “unconventional wisdom” branding for the overall university. How did this new section change how you covered research and knowledge?

We changed our Abstract department, which we advertised as “findings, research and more” to Wisdom. This new section delivers broad coverage of innovation — in the lab, the field, and in the classroom. That small tweak set up an expectation for us to focus on creativity in and outside of the sciences. We work hard to not only write about recent scientific findings (like we would in the old Abstract) but also to include research findings from the humanities and social sciences and highlights from our burgeoning arts programming.

We also moved our teaching stars into Wisdom and out of the campus life section. One of the values of coming to Rice is that there is such an emphasis on undergraduate teaching within this hyper-powered research school. Teaching and research are on equal footing in this section.

With all Rice’s innovation story possibilities, how do you find the right mix?

Our team of writers and editors — Tracey Rhoades, Kyndall Krist, Kendall Schoemann — along with Alese and our boss, Jeff Cox, meet weekly to discuss assignment progress, stories and plans. We collaborate a great deal with the staff in our news and media office as well as campus photographers Tommy Lavergne and Jeff Fitlow — and we often tap communications staff from across the campus for leads.

We run original, as-told-to interviews with beloved teachers. And then, there’s those “mini-article” types you mentioned. One idea you guys helped us incorporate is the “We Don’t Know” series. It’s kind of a backwards way to get research professors to talk about their expertise — by talking about what they haven’t figured out yet. What scholarly questions keep them up at night? What motivates them to find answers to what they don’t know?

The infographics help explain complex science, so people can nerd out on that! A one-page visual story in our Spring 2020 issue is about using an electrical flash to turn trash into tiny graphene flakes, which can be used to reduce waste in all kinds of industries. We received a “positive” comment from a reader that said, “This is what Rice Magazine should be about.” But we also think alumni in general appreciate learning about this kind of research.

How is this new approach more appealing to readers?

It is my favorite section, and surveys show it is our most-read department. And that’s true for all people who read the print magazine, not just the scientists. Our surveys hit readers of every age, and there’s a mix of both humanities and science majors.

Our post-issue surveys ask another important question: Did you learn something new about Rice? To us, that’s an indication that we’re achieving our goal of being both a “slow news” summary and an educational publication about our own campus.

EMBRACING THE UNCONVENTIONAL

One thing that stood out to us was that Rice had a distinct culture. That’s definitely an advantage because it lets you be strategic about producing stories your readers will be interested in. What are your readers like?

Well, alumni from different decades bring different memories and experiences to the pages. Overall, I’d say they appreciate quirky individualism and the experience of being part of a small, university that nurtures academic talents and encourages community engagement. It’s just a wonderful environment.

Because Rice has been such a small school and until the last decade was dominated by undergraduate life (the student body is now about evenly divided between undergraduates and grad students), it’s a place where they formed intense, lifelong friendships. Like most alumni, they appreciate their teachers and mentors.

And there’s a 100-year history here that they can have pride in and also be critical toward, which is so important. The campus is having a serious conversation about Rice’s founder, William Marsh Rice (1816-1900), who was an enterprising businessman and landowner who made his fortune importing and exporting goods. He was also an enslaver who had served on Houston’s “slave patrol” and whose original vision of Rice was to be a vocational school for white students only. Currently, a statue of Rice sits on a plinth, containing some of his ashes, in the middle of our main quad. Many students and alumni are advocating that the statue be moved out of the central quad or removed entirely. This is just one of the robust, difficult conversations going on in the wake of calls for racial justice.

We are lucky to have a president who writes directly and candidly about these issues in the magazine — and these are campus issues we’ll be covering in our next few issues, along with the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.

Let’s talk about some changes we made to bring out the idea of “unconventional.” One example is the cover. There’s a small nameplate instead of a big one. It can change color. It can move. Has that flexible cover turned out to be a gift or a curse?

My favorite part of the design is the cover. Alese has taken full advantage of its possibilities — her designs are so fresh and surprising. In our first five issues of the redesign, the nameplate has moved all over the page – it’s a traveling nameplate. And our border changes colors, so those elements have made the cover more interesting.

The first redesigned issue had a mint green border. I remember thinking, “Mint green is nobody’s school color!”

I thought that was a super-interesting choice that Alese came up with, inspired by the art exhibit that was our cover story. It was so spring-like and new.

Another unconventional change is the structure itself. That first feature — your cover story — starts immediately. When we were brainstorming, you called it the “cold open” (like the first sketch on “Saturday Night Live”). Now that you’ve done several issues, how is that working?

It still feels like a fresh new experiment every issue, but it’s actually an idea inspired by Denison’s magazine. We have to decide “What is the cover story?” because our magazine cover is also Page 1 of the cover story. When we first talked about “the cold opener,” I thought it would always be very visual. But Alese has pushed it to work as a narrative vehicle, too. It gives us a framework to experiment. In our first few issues, we have three primarily visual cover stories and two narratives.

Everyone — even your alumni — told us about the school’s super-smart culture. So we added a profile piece celebrating nerd culture. Did that make any enemies?

We ask our subjects ahead of time: Would you like to be a part of our series called “I’m a Nerd About … “? And do you mind being called a nerd? They always say, “Oh, I’m fine with that.” We’re still experimenting with it, making it about both technical and crafty obsessions.

Here’s another example of unconventional: A couple months into the pandemic, you published a magazine with 1970s pro wrestlers on the cover. I think you hit the zeitgeist: your issue came out just as people were starting to say, “We don’t want bad news all the time.” You had timely pandemic-related content inside, but it wasn’t your cover image. What was the strategy?

Our strategy, honestly, was to use most of the content that we had planned already and to find a way to cover fast-moving news in the slowest, stickiest way possible.

We substituted one feature out with an expanded note from our president, which included a lot of photos of the pandemic-effected campus. We might typically publish idyllic images of students walking around campus with sunlight streaming through the live oak trees, carrying a backpack and a skateboard. But these were photos of the president and his wife wearing face masks and pictures of storage pods next to dorms — far from idyllic. We also included a photo of students who were inventing an emergency bag ventilator in the Engineering Design Kitchen. We put extra COVID-19 stories online — and promoted them on the back cover.

We started a special online series called “Tiny Acts of Kindness,” which highlights how our community is taking care of others and each other. I’m really proud of this tiny series because it highlights the civic character embedded in alumni and student life.

Looking back, we split our issue’s content between “normal” and COVID, which come to think of it mirrored our spring semester.

What feedback on the wrestling cover did you receive from readers?

That cover story functioned almost as an archival story, but within reach of many readers’ memories. We’ve just gotten two emails so far, both super-positive. In our survey, older alumni, especially those from Houston, reacted as we expected — with an appreciative and nostalgic nod toward this weird corner of the city’s life. We received a lot of “I remember when” comments. Others just loved the documentary photography.

One of our original goals was to make the magazine mirror Rice culture. Some editors or VPs might worry that a magazine could become too “insider” — so much that normal people wouldn’t be able to figure out what’s going on. Do you have a formula for balancing insiders versus the general public?

In the surveys that we did in the research phase of our redesign, people mentioned that they liked to hear about things that are unique to Rice. That’s their folklore, their bond, their shared history. They like to share it, so why wouldn’t we?

Some of these traditions cross generations, in a good way. Then some traditions are more recent and completely “invented” (or “inspired by” some other school’s tradition). Alumni before a certain year, somewhere before the mid-1990s, had never heard of the tradition of not walking through the Sallyport (an archway in the oldest building on campus) until graduation. To undergraduates now, it has gone on forever. That’s the measure of a good invented tradition!

Internal teams can redesign magazines themselves — if they can find the time and have a certain talent level. What do you feel bringing in outsiders like us adds to the finished result?

Alese and I both welcomed an outside perspective, advice and creative ideas. But we didn’t want a team to just take it over — we wanted to be highly involved. What I appreciated about Zehno is that you guys were willing to be our coach, and by that I mean to actively coach and steer us through the steps we needed to take to achieve our final product. Alese led the redesign in-house, and I wanted to think about improving our feature choice and departments, so we needed somebody to help us bring those goals together more collaboratively. We came away with a lot of ownership and faith in the project.

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