Nicole O’Toole took home the “Best Creative Director” at last year’s Pearl Awards for her work on fresh magazine for the Northeast American supermarket chain Hannaford Supermarkets. Here she talks to Content Magazine about her role, how to create the perfect front page, and why social and print media complement each other.
Content Magazine: What does your role as a creative director entail?
Nicole O’Toole: As the creative director for John Brown Media U.S., I oversee our creative efforts with all of our clients, which involves understanding their needs and working collaboratively to find engaging ways to tell their stories across multiple platforms. For Hannaford, that work includes its in-store magazine, fresh, which has a print circulation of 250,000, and also a robust digital presence. We start with an intake meeting with the client, in which we discuss any marketing initiatives and new products that might be a good fit for upcoming issues. We take these back to our team and brainstorm creative approaches to bring these initiatives to life. We also combine those ideas with what we see happening in the broader media landscape—what’s new, what’s interesting, what the audience is looking for. We generally have a million more ideas than we can fit into one issue, so we put all of them up on a whiteboard wall, scratch some out, move others to different sections or save them for later issues, and from there we create a line-up. As our editors, writers, and food team work on their stories and recipes, my creative team and I brainstorm on the look and feel and how we want to design the pages. I also prepare photo briefs so that when food stylists and photographers show up for photoshoots, they all know the look that we’re going for. After the photo shoot I’m back at my desk, creating the layouts and using the copy and visuals to create an engaging end product.
What’s your relationship with the editorial director? Who has the most sway, or is it a joint partnership?
It’s definitely a joint collaboration, and we work really well together. Often, we’ll reach the same conclusion on the best way to integrate the art and the story. Everyone on the team appreciates that the visuals are really important, and that it needs to be thought of from the very first step.
What makes the perfect front page? How does it draw attention to your title in stores and online?
It’s really important to Hannaford that it fresh feels approachable and recognizable. We want people to immediately connect with what the dish is, and to get excited about it, just by looking at the cover. So, we take that into consideration when we’re choosing what to feature on the front. As with all magazines, the cover should be seasonal and feel appropriate—so if it’s winter we’ll put something cozy on there; if it’s summer we’ll put something fresh. It’s important that the food and dishes look like something customers could make at home, so we don’t over style or rely heavily on Photoshop—we’re not going for a look that’s too perfect or commercial. We want readers to know that when they see our front cover, it’s real food, created by real people, that live in the Hannaford footprint. It really has to thread the needle between approachable and aspirational, in that it’s different and the audience wants to try it.
What color palettes work, what puts people off, and what colors are most eye-catching or attractive?
With food, you want to keep the color palette and fonts simple and clean. The reader shouldn’t be looking at a million different things on a page. We want their eye to focus on the image of the food and take that in. If the food we are featuring is colorful, the page will naturally have a lot of color already on it. Or if we’re going for a colorful backyard picnic, the props we use will have more color, too. In general, I believe in keeping things relatively neutral and letting the food be the star.
What’s the typical ratio of imagery to words on a page? Is there a power play between you and the editorial team about how to use space?
The editors are aware of the space that we have, and the importance of the imagery of food. The pictures need to be big enough so that the reader can see what they’re looking at, especially if it’s a recipe. We provide a lot of step-by-step and instructional content, and I believe it’s important for people who are cooking to be able to see images of what the sauce should look like, or how they should roll the dough. Our layouts have a good balance. We’ve eliminated entire stories in the past to make sure that we have room for the visuals and for the text that needs to accompany them, rather than cramming a whole bunch of stuff into the magazine. There needs to be white space.
How do you use social platforms to complement your work in print? Do you have a distinct approach to working on social?
We look at social as a reader service for Hannaford’s customers. We think about all digital channels right when we start planning an issue as part of our overall omnichannel approach. There are a lot of times in food and cooking in which a video or a simple gif can really help a reader understand the core process that they might otherwise be afraid of or gloss over when they are reading a recipe. We usually will review our issue’s entire recipe line-up and then think about which recipes will benefit from a step-by-step or recipe video. Recipe videos are effective at demonstrating how easy something is to make, which can’t be conveyed in just an image. Instagram and YouTube really lend themselves to instructional types of visual content, which helps to complement the recipes we feature in the print edition. At the end of the day our aim is to give Hannaford’s readers the best experience, whether that’s in print or digital.
Finally, where do you get your inspiration from—are there go-to sites/brands/artists you look to emulate in your work?
I love food; that’s one of the things I love about this job. Most of my inspiration comes from food magazines, cookbooks, menus, websites—that’s my realm. I can get it from strange places, too, such as the books I’m reading to my kids. I find it fascinating to look at illustrations and see how a simple illustration can nail the essence of the story.