Don’t design your online magazine… blueprint it (a how to)

Grab a pencil and some paper…

Do you feel like this?

This story starts with a person I call the frenzied editor. Not long ago I walked into the office of this publisher who was peering over a conference room table, with about 30 white pieces of paper scattered about. What he was doing was busily sorting out what pages would go where in his publication. He was determining what was on his homepage, the sub pages, where the features would go, the ad zones and all the components of his revised publication. He didn’t look very happy, because he kept throwing pieces of paper in the garbage, striking out certain features, frantically writing  notes in the side margins, and apparently didn’t have any idea where he was going.

The next story starts with the publisher who has picked out a WordPress theme and is trying to stuff her content into a premade design. This approach assumes that the magazine’s priorities need to fit into a structure that was made by a designer who has no idea what the goals of this publication are.

These are both true stories and unfortunately a much too common approach.

The lure of design up front is strong, but you will never be satisfied with a design because you don’t really know what is most important to you (the trap is that in the beginning you will tend to find everything important).
I call this the kitchen sink approach where too much content and functionality are dumped on a page to be fit in without any thought to what is really important (this also happens over time as you “forget stuff” that you need to fit in). Have you ever seen a publication that is just a jammed mess on the home page? Yeah me too…

Design follows priorities

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that we are tempted to start at the end and want to choose a design that looks snazzy, and in reality doesn’t do anything to support the mission of your publication. If you think about it, form follows function, or design follows priorities. The solution is to figure out what your publication needs to promote 1st, and then let the design support those needs.

In most magazines or news sites there are two common priorities that need to be figured out:

1. What is the most important thing you are selling?

  1. advertising
  2. subscriptions
  3. products
  4. a membership community
  5. a print publication
  6. Digital or iPad publication
  7. education
  8. other?

2. How are you reaching new readers?

  1. free content that will attract Google search and can be passed around via Facebook, Twitter, and the thousands of other social media sites that are out there.
  2. social media in itself can be a focus to promote your publication
  3. building an e-mail list would also rank up as one of the top priorities for any online publication, as an e-mail list is still gold for reaching subscribers over and over again
  4. how about a blog? Somewhere to publish your real-time information and attract more search traffic and links
  5. other?

These are all priorities that most publishers face. What are your most important priorities?

Online publication nuts and bolts

Okay let’s go a little deeper and talk about some of features that you might install on your publication. These are features that you will likely come across as needed to support the mission of your magazine or news site:

  • current issue layout
  • feature articles
  • a compelling buy now callout
  • e-mail subscription signup
  • past issues page
  • your social media hangouts
  • a current issue cover
  • mission text
  • ad zones
  • advertorials
  • a free download
  • PDF versions of an issue
  • a search function
  • what’s coming in the next issue
  • bringing forward conversation by highlighting comments in your publication
  • a news blog for in between news
  • the 27 different WordPress plugins you thought would be cool for your site
  • other things I missed

You will go crazy trying to lay out these elements without knowing which are most important (I have seen it more times than I would like).  It’s time to create a plan of action, what is called a blueprint and wireframes for your publication to make everything make sense for the reader and motivate your reader to do what you want them to do. I promise you once you finish wireframing your publication, design will come much easier. You will be able to hand off your blueprints and wireframes to a designer thrilled to have a wonderful structure that’s clear to design so that the design promotes your priorities. Or if you’re choosing a WordPress theme, the right layout will support most of your needs right out-of-the-box. Tweaking required.

How do you create your blueprint and wireframes? What are they?

A blueprint is a writeup that states what the mission of your publication is, outlines the details of your priorities, and what software and plugins you need to have installed. A wireframe is a skeleton drawing of the pages on your site, a visual outline similar to this one for a homepage:

Sample wireframe

Here are the steps to get your blueprint and wireframes written up. If you follow them as we have in our work, you’ll end up with a publication that promotes your priorities, that your readers will appreciate, and will do the job of both reaching new readers and getting them to engage with your content.

And it’s the best $$ you will spend on your publication

What do you think? Comment below!
marketing geek – the author

1. Have a conversation with a marketing geek. That’s right this is the time to find an online marketer, a brand specialist, somebody with a good sales head on their shoulders, a friend, or someone who can give you some frank feedback on your ideas. Pay them to sit down with you for an hour or 2 and have a conversation about your publication to find out what your goals are, how you will attract new readers, help you look at any other publications you like, and crystalize how to make money with your publication. Having a conversation about the nuts and bolts of your publication naturally and organically bubbles up what’s important to you. It’s usually when you shout something like.. “yeah we need to do that!” that you know you have stumbled across a real priority.

How to start: Whip out 2 sheets of blank paper and a pencil (so you can change your mind). Write Homepage on one sheet.

Start the conversation. Talk about the simple stuff first, warm up with other magazines/sites you have seen that you like, and talk about the functions you see in them that you think might work. Talk about your content, articles, photos, videos, audio that you might want to publish. Talk about your readers and what they might want to see or communicate about in your publication (it is interactive). Talk about how to reach new readers. Talk about how to encourage readers to subscribe to something. Talk about advertisers and who they are and what they might want to see. Talk about the little things. What will happen will surprise you. As you discuss and hit upon something your really really want, write it down on your page titled Homepage. Continue to do this until your homepage is filled up with your big and little wants. This conversation should clarify exactly what’s important to you, so that at the end you will have a nice neat pile of priorities on your Homepage ready for you to rearrange.

At the top of the second sheet write Article Page. Your individual Article page is at least the 2nd most important page on your site (remember 70% of your readers will land on your article page 1st before they see your homepage). Look at your sheet titled Homepage. What items on your priority list need to also live on your article page? Copy them over to your Article page. When readers start landing on your article pages you will want them to continue to read and engage on your site. Perhaps it’s a free issue they need to drop off their email address for, or easy access to your other/most popular content, or other. Make sure you read: Your magazine article page layout – top 7 todos.

Once you finish this conversation(s) you will find yourself in a much better space and even more fired up about your publication. This is a huge step forward in cementing exactly what your publication needs to be, when you finish your blueprint and wireframes, the design process will be a relative snap.

2. The next step is to go through these priorities and figure out which ones are most important for publication, and weed out the priorities (which after a day or 2 of sleeping on this list) don’t make sense. Choose to focus on as few home page items as possible. Keep in mind the fewer things you show to your reader the more impact they will have. Every element you add to your site distracts from your true priority. Consider how much content you find on‘s homepage:

yep that’s their whole homepage

3. Sketch out the home and article page wireframes (sketch all your pages out if you can) grab a pencil and paper and sketch out the basic building blocks of each page (see wireframe sample above). The trick is to figure out how much real estate to assign each of your priorities. This now comes more naturally since you know what’s really important. Keep in mind as you draw (yes use that pencil) that site visitors scroll down your pages. As long as there are clues that more content lives down below, we have gotten so good at scrolling that we prefer it to clicking links. It’s way faster to scroll down a page (with scroll wheels and touchpads) than it is to click a link and wait for the next page to load. Take a look at the and see how far down they put content on their pages.

Marines WordPress Magazine

4. Design it. Now that you know what is really important for your home/article pages, it’s time to design. If you go custom, your designer will hug you for giving them such blueprint and wireframe clarity. Their sole mission will now be to create a look and feel that turbocharges your priorities.

Go template: you can go to, (affiliate) or other theme makers for a great design starting point. If you can find a premade design or theme that matches your wireframe you are golden. Keep in mind you don’t have to love the theme at first, just like it. Most WordPress themes are easily editable and you should count on stripping out and replacing all the imagery, changing the color scheme and layout to match your brand and wireframes. In the hands of a solid WordPress developer they will edit the theme that you like to match your priorities exactly. When they are done, you will love it. I promise.

Whether you go custom design or go with a premade theme you will end up with a fantastic look that supports your priorities exactly.

I hope this blueprinting roadmap helps you to understand how to tackle starting your publication from scratch or perhaps how to rebuild your current publication. If you need help or have comments I would love to hear from you below in the comments or privately if you like.


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