‘Designing the Editorial Experience’: When Content Strategy and Design Come Together


Sue Apfelbaum

“A lot of smart people are writing books and sharing their knowledge, and I never thought that I would be one of them,” says Sue Apfelbaum, a User Experience Design graduate who recently co-authored the book, Designing the Editorial Experience: A Primer for Print, Web and Mobile.

1. What were you doing before your course at General Assembly?

I was editorial director for AIGA, the professional association for design. While there I was in charge of content development for aiga.org and also worked with brands and publishing partners on co-presenting books, weDeibinars, and blogs, including the daily inspiration site designenvy.aiga.org.

2. What brought you to General Assembly?

After working on a redesign of aiga.org, which launched in 2010, and then maintaining that for a year, I had a lot of questions about how better reading and publishing experiences are created.  I had an editorial background but knew nothing about experience strategy.

I wasn’t aware of anyone else offering a course like this.  I liked the way GA designed its communications — Mimi Chun was the creative director and an AIGA/NY board member at the time — and I thought maybe this UX course might give me the knowledge I was craving.  It was the first time GA was offering the 12-week course, but I wanted to take the leap. I was happy to be a guinea pig!

I was a bit unusual from my other classmates in that I didn’t have a startup idea in mind, and I wasn’t planning to become a UX designer. I wanted to move into content strategy, which is integral to the user experience.

At first I thought I would use these skills at AIGA, but I got laid off three weeks into the term. That was stressful! But it also freed me to focus on learning just for me and to figure out the job I ultimately wanted to do. I wanted to know more about how sites and apps get built and how the magic happens.  That’s basically what I still think about now: When things just “work,” it seems magical, even though I know it’s the result of smart people and a lot of hard work.

3. Your book, Designing the Editorial Experience, just came out this spring. How’d you snag that book deal?

Luckily, an editor pitched me. And the timing was perfect. Rockport Publishing wanted an intro to editorial design, and that intrigued me because of my own experience working on magazines and serial publishing on the web.  I wanted to make a book that wouldn’t romanticize the glory days of print and would cover the landscape of editorial design across media, and I wondered what insights remained true in spite of rapid changes in technology.

Juliette Cezzar, who’s now president of AIGA/NY and was the head of the communication design department at Parsons at the time, was the perfect co-author and collaborator. She and I had worked together on a magazine called RES in the mid-2000s, and because of her expertise as a designer and educator, she had a crucial understanding of what skills designers would need.  And we both feel strongly that the best editorial experiences are the result of designers and editors working together. She also did an amazing job designing the book itself.

Designing the Editorial Experience

Designing the Editorial Experience: A Primer for Print, Web and Mobile is available for purchase online.

4. Any challenges you didn’t expect?

We knew from the start that editorial design is temporal, so our visual examples could seem dated quickly. We never imagined that the subject of one of our most extensive case studies, New York magazine, would go from a weekly to biweekly.  That was pretty radical. At least we were able to mention the change was coming before the book went to press.

5. Anything you’d like to share with the aspiring book author?

A lot of smart people are writing books and sharing their knowledge, and I never thought that I would one of them.  I love the web and I’m happy to be working in it, but I’ve also discovered how much value there is in a form that has a beginning and an end — that feels digestible.

Writing is tough to do, but I encourage people to do it because you never know who’s going to find meaning in your words. I started at GA thinking I wanted to get into content strategy (which I’m now doing), and some of the most supportive words I’ve received since Designing the Editorial Experience came out have come from Kristina Halvorson, who wrote the book on content strategy for the web. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that, and it’s nothing short of mind blowing.

I’d encourage anyone to consider it. What do you care about, and what knowledge do you have that others would value?  Even if you think it’s all be said and done before, I can assure you it hasn’t.  Not as you would tell it, anyway.

6. Guilty pleasure?

I’d have to say gummy bears (Haribo, specifically) are how I reward myself for, or how I power through, most major deadlines. I’m not proud of that, though!

I also fall down Instagram rabbit holes when I want to get distracted or inspired.

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Susan Soriano is a Digital Marketing graduate who is a part-time Alumni Story Lead.