The redesign of the Texas Observer

The redesign of the Texas Observer The Texas Observer has an over 50-year tradition of being the only regular muckraking outlet for investigative journalism in the state. It's published biweekly, to a small audience of politically liberal readers. With the recent launch of the online Texas Tribune, a reporting competitor, the Observer decided to produce a long-overdue redesign. The work was done by Em Dash, a studio headed up by Erin Mayes and Kate Iltis, based in Austin. The challenge was to create a template that could be produced by one part-time art director with a $450 art budget per issue. The result: a sharp, smart, right on, low-budget, high-impact design, perfect for the magazine's mix of muckraking reporting and liberal politics.

Texas Observer before covers.jpg

The "before" covers of the Texas Observer. 

Erin Mayes: "The Texas Observer has a great history of groundbreaking journalism, but they have always been the underdog of publications in Texas. As a not-for-profit venture, financed mostly from subscriptions and fundraising, it's famously looked like a newsletter, with bad printing, bad art, and no love from the aesthetic side."


Feature spread from the second redesigned issue. 

Erin Mayes: "For us, it was an opportunity to create a unique-looking, very Texan newsmagazine that wasn't sold on the newsstand. It's always an exciting challenge to design a publication that doesn't have to compete in that environment."

Another feature spread from the second redesigned issue.

The designers gave The Texas Observer a tight format, with two wide columns and one narrow, a simple palette of headline options, and a strong and elegant typographic approach to text. The narrow columns built in much-needed white space, and also gave the editors a place to work in additional entry points such as pullquotes, captions, sidebars, and charts and graphics. And even though they have color available on a number of pages, it's used sparingly and to effect. Grey tones are used on type on the all-black pages to add texture and to soften the boldness of the display type.


The last spread of the magazine, featuring the editor's opinion page (left), and a photo page (right). 

Erin Mayes: We wanted to make The Observer an outlet for documentary photography work in Texas, to take advantage of the many fantastic photographers here. The editors agreed to give the last page of the magazine to feature work from photographers' projects. Each caption links to the photographer's website and the full story that is already posted online."


The political news section of the magazine.

Erin Mayes: The creative community in Texas has rallied behind The Observer. Photographers and illustrators have been happy to work for lower rates to get their work into the magazine alongside great stories. It's been years since I've worked with alternative media, so I'd forgotten what a higher-mission it can feel like to put one of these publications together. And how completely gratifying it feels when you design or produce something that's meaningful."

Additional work on The Texas Observer redesign was done by Simon Renwick and Joanna Wojtkowiak.

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  • Jimmy Ball

    Very nicely done!

  • Emily Smith

    You've gotta think Molly Ivins is looking down on this with the greatest smile. Absolutely fantastic.

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