One of the most surprisingly creative graphic design experiences in the magazine world comes from the generally dry and dull field of pension plans.
In the United States, it is an important subject given the very different pension and welfare system, with myriad consultants, agencies and companies operating in this sector.
That’s why there’s an entire magazine devoted to pension plans that has been published bi-monthly since 1993. It’s called PlanSponsor.
PlanSponsor, together with its most recent advertising campaign, PlanAdviser, is one of the best examples of how investing heavily in visual design can be an extraordinary asset for a magazine. Under creative director Soojin Buzelli, PlanSponsor has been widely recognised as one of the best publications in the world for the use of illustration, winning prizes from the likes of the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts magazine, and the Society of Publication Designers.
Vertical content and inspiring illustration
PlanSponsor offers specific content aimed at a very knowledgeable target audience who are looking for the latest news and information. A specialist magazine must have compelling content to become an authority in its field, but too often a focus on content means that graphic design is neglected.
You might expect a magazine about pension plans to be full of silver-haired athleisure-clad models smiling as they joyfully jog through picture-perfect parks. But PlanSponsor’s brilliant idea, expertly executed over the years by art director Soojin Buzelli, has been to use imagination, fantasy, mythology, colour and avant-garde graphic design in this most unexpected setting by commissioning some of the most talented illustrators working today.
In the example below, for instance, illustrator Tran Nguyen freely interpreted the article’s theme of transition management.
When you have a fantastical illustration like this, the graphic should remain in the background, allowing the headline to interact with the image and its colours.
Creative but coherent illustrations
Another feature of PlanSponsor and its creative direction is how these fantastical and surreal illustrations tie in perfectly with the issues addressed, which are anything but fantastical and surreal.
As you can see from the examples below, article headlines serve as the illustrator’s guiding brief, a simple concept expressed in few words . This means the illustrator doesn’t have to read the article and get too far into the weeds with technical terms, which could negatively influence their work and lead to the usual visual cliches associated with the world of finance.
The result is a dazzling kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that dance before our eyes.
Although the magazine is principally distributed through subscriptions and events organised by the publisher, PlanSponsor still makes full use of illustration to create eye-catching and memorable covers.
The illustration is then referenced and often expanded in the double-page spread dedicated to that issue’s main theme.
Working with illustrators
Much of the credit for this impeccably designed magazine must go to its art director, Soojin Buzelli. Illustrators love working with her because she lets them unleash their imaginations with some of the craziest commissions of their careers.
PlanSponsor and PlanAdviser have showcased some of the best illustration of the last 30 years, with artwork that is eclectic in both style and geographic origin.
Some of the biggest names in illustration and graphic design have graced the pages of this pension magazine, including Brad Holland, Yuko Shimizu, Chris Buzelli, James Yang, Victo Ngai, Rednose Studio, Gerard Dubois, Gianluca Folì and Elisa Macellari.
Just Google “PlanSponsor illustrations” to see what the world’s greatest illustration talents can do.
If you want to be the best, you need outstanding visuals
That’s the takeaway from PlanSponsor, which shows how a publication can become renowned and influential even if it focuses on niche themes that are of little interest to most.
Meticulous attention to visuals (images and illustrations), together with quality content, are the key to a successful magazine, as PlanSponsor shows: while its layouts, fonts and grids are understated and basic, its masterful use of illustrations make it visually interesting and entertaining to read.
In the world boring world of finance magazines, PlanSponsor is a brightly coloured bubble that we hope never bursts.