How AARP Media is designing for America’s golden years

For more than 47 million Americans, AARP Magazine provides a glimpse into modern life over 50. Boasting the highest circulation of any magazine in print, the general interest publication is a flagship project of AARP Media. Despite the assumption that users’ age must be the key consideration for the in-house design team, the designers are challenged to create engaging content that appeals to a demographic that’s surprisingly wide-ranging in its needs.

While the foundation of the design team’s work is the AARP Magazine and the Bulletin, an evergreen list of topics and resources published 10 times a year, the designers also weigh in on special initiatives, from AARP Foundation, to Rewards for Good program, to translating magazine design onto the web. According to deputy art director Diane Holton, one of the most significant changes in how the in-house design team works over the past decade is that they are more frequently collaborating and working with other departments, like editorial and communications.

“We used to be very siloed,” Holton says. “I think now we’ve gotten to a point where we’re learning to work together. So if I’m working on design that’s for print but then I’m going to put it on tablet, I might need a video to support that or some kind of animation to support that. Then web might want the story that I have designed for print to make interactive for the web. So we are learning over the past few years how to work together to tell the stories that we want to tell.” Working to serve the increasingly tech-savvy readership, the team now has a dedicated staff position working on the company’s tablet content.

During weekly creative meetings, Holton also keeps her designers on their toes by regularly changing up the sections that each designer works on. “If somebody is always working on health, we might switch it up and say okay, try working on the money section, because you’re going to come at it from a different lens,” she notes. “Because if they’re always working on health they’re going to have their health references they always lean on, but if you get someone fresh, it causes them to have to do some research. It might take a little more time, but they’ll find something that’s going to be different than the person who did it prior.” The designers are also given special projects, like designing an app on beauty, health, or money that they could see through from ideation to execution—occasionally working with freelance designers or illustrators (Chris Gash or Brian Taylor, for example) who know the brand.

Commissioned artwork from freelance illustrators

Holton points out that one of the unique design challenges that unite the team at AARP Media is that almost none of the designers are actual members of their target demographic. To achieve not only the right tone, but also the right user experience, the team must work with a wealth of data and research to help inform their work (oftentimes even polling their parents for insight). They also work with the editorial team who weighs in with information regarding their audience.

Holton describes the experience of serving an older demographic as being “essentially advocacy nonprofits for this industry… We want to get things right for this demographic. So we want to make sure that we are clear and we’re concise. If we’re talking about health care, we want to make sure that people really understand what we’re trying to convey. So we don’t do things for the sake of making them pretty, we do things because we need to share information, so that people can then apply that to whatever it is they’re in need of—like looking into a new bill or reaching out to their congressman or congresswoman.”

“When you have a membership as big as ours, it’s important to make sure that you aren’t too specialized. You don’t want to cater to just an elite group,” says Holton. It can’t be underscored enough that AARP Media’s work needs to be diverse and accessible to a huge readership across the country. “So we do that dance periodically and we do a litmus test to see, ‘Okay is this too highbrow? Yeah it probably is. Is a person in Middle America going to understand this?’ We do testing internally, but I think over time the data that we’ve had in-house is what really has helped shape our design into something that is digestible wherever they are on the income level or wherever they are geographically.” Designing for a diverse demographic and constantly exercising empathy for the user keeps the team on their toes, but one thing is for sure: They sure are making retirement look good.