I was recently mulling over some ideas for a future publish­ing project, and my mind returned to a concept that first occurred to me a few years ago — a tool for think­ing through the possi­bil­i­ties of any edito­r­ial design project that I called the Uniqueness-​Flexibility Matrix.

At the time, I was work­ing on a big maga­zine redesign, and the edito­r­ial lineup was chang­ing quite a bit at the same time. This meant we were devel­op­ing a lot of brand new depart­ments at once, which is where this concept really comes in handy — it’s a way of think­ing through a whole design system, but it’s simple enough that you can work it out on the back of a napkin. Here’s how it works:

Essentially, the design for any depart­ment, section, or recur­ring piece in a publi­ca­tion can be thought to exist along two axes: 

  1. Uniqueness within the publi­ca­tion
  2. Flexibility from issue to issue
Uniqueness along Y axis. Flexibility along X axis.

In other words, for each recur­ring item you’re asking two things: How differ­ent is it from its neigh­bors (which, taken as a whole, helps deter­mine how flex­i­ble the publication’s over­all design system needs to be) and how much vari­ety is it likely to have over time (which deter­mines how flex­i­ble its own design needs to be).  

Imagine some­thing like an Editor’s Letter. You might plot that on the matrix around here:

Uniqueness along Y axis. Flexibility along X axis. Dot placed at high uniqueness, low flexibility

Uniqueness is high, since noth­ing else in the mag looks like a letter. But there’s usually no flex­i­bil­ity at all; letters like this are often 100% templated, down to the famil­iar smil­ing head­shot. 

Meanwhile, some­thing like the back page ‘dessert’ piece that many print maga­zines have might be here:

Uniqueness along Y axis. Flexibility along X axis. Dot placed at high uniqueness, medium flexibility

Again, these tend to be quite unlike anything around them, being a single page with a tight concept. But in this case we’ve charted the flex­i­bil­ity moder­ately high, indi­cat­ing that it can change a bit each issue to suit the content and art for that install­ment. (For a differ­ent publi­ca­tion whose last page has a very rigid design—think New York’s Approval Matrix [no relation!]—you might put it much farther left.)

How about other depart­ment pieces? You can imag­ine one that’s plot­ted like this:

Uniqueness along Y axis. Flexibility along X axis. Dot placed at low-medium uniqueness, medium flexibility

Maybe it shares quite a bit of under­ly­ing struc­ture with other pieces of a simi­lar kind, but there’s some moder­ate flex­i­bil­ity each time for differ­ent art treat­ments, differ­ent lengths, etc.

Here’s where things get inter­est­ing, because you can really change the char­ac­ter of a section — like a chunky front section or a series of columns — by play­ing with the place­ment of that dot on the matrix. Should read­ers feel a reas­sur­ing regu­lar­ity as they move through the section, or are they on a wilder ride with a sense of discov­ery and surprise? How much can the layout flex each time while still feel­ing recog­niz­able to a regu­lar reader?

I’ve found this frame­work to be really help­ful for think­ing through a design system for a publi­ca­tion, but it’s a useful idea for all kinds of other projects too: The plan­ning stages of larger web projects, for instance (when decid­ing whether a type of content requires a new template or page style), or even just deter­min­ing how a set of deliv­er­ables fits into a larger market­ing campaign that might evolve over time. 

Which brings me to one other consid­er­a­tion with the Uniqueness-​Flexibility Matrix: How far do the axes extend? You can imag­ine a theo­ret­i­cal publi­ca­tion with both vari­ables at zero (the most rigid template possi­ble, where only the content ever changes) and one with both vari­ables at infin­ity (each new arti­cle is a world unto itself with no simi­lar­i­ties to any other, past or present). 

Somewhere on that infi­nite matrix is a smaller region that repre­sents the design space for any given project. How big should that region be? Said another way: How far in should you trim your possi­bil­i­ties?

Axes extending with arrows. Square in the middle.

As an edito­r­ial designer with a foot in both print and digi­tal worlds, I find it curi­ous how many of our digi­tal read­ing expe­ri­ences are still squashed into the lower left corner of that infi­nite matrix. There are, of course, some good reasons why. But I wonder what we could gain if we start to expand outward and upward, just a little.