UCF Grad Contemporizes the Classic ‘Highlights’ Magazine’

UCF Grad Contemporizes the Classic ‘Highlights’ Magazine’

As design director for Highlights magazine, Patrick Greenish ’02 drives the look of a publication that plays an influential role for hundreds of thousands of children across the United States. And that impact isn’t lost on him.

By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17

“I didn’t read the whole story, but every time I look at my couch I think, ‘That’s as big as a whale shark’s mouth,’ ” Patrick Greenish ’02 says, recalling a letter a young boy sent to the Highlights office in January 2015.

The boy was referring to a bit of information he had seen on a spread in the popular monthly children’s magazine, which Greenish became the design director for in April 2014. Feedback like that provides the graphic design grad with a sense of validation and helps him maintain the perspective needed to do his job right.

The 2015 whale shark spread Greenish worked on that prompted a young boy to write in to Highlights.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to make sure that even if a kid isn’t a reader, if they’re more of a visual learner, that we provide something they can take away without reading the entire piece,” he says.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to make sure … we provide something [kids] can take away without reading the entire piece.” 

That mindset is fitting for a publication with the tagline “Fun with a Purpose.” As design director, Greenish is responsible for the look and feel of the entire magazine. When he joined the Highlights team five years ago, he brought along a wide range of expertise from working on surfing, kiteboarding, boating, women’s fertility and parenting magazines. They helped him develop experience with illustration styles and working with illustrators — a signature of Highlights’ style — but he ultimately faced a learning curve.

“Kids are still learning how to read, so we can’t go to crazy with the flow of text,” Greenish says. “There aren’t ads in Highlights like adult magazines, which provide a natural break. You have to be mindful of pacing. So that’s something that’s challenging and limiting in your design. But that creates a new challenge of ‘How do I make this engaging, yet super easy to follow?’ ”

Another challenge he dealt with was updating the overall design of the magazine. Highlights has been around since 1946 and has published more than a billion copies, with a philosophy centered around packing as much as possible within its 44 pages (which is the name of a 2017 documentary that features Greenish and the Highlights team working on the 70th anniversary issue). Greenish felt there was a need to contemporize the magazine with white space and color, and to simplify the magazine’s organization and style to appeal to today’s kids.

“It was daunting. Here you’ve got a 70-year-old brand and it needed some changes and you didn’t want to break something that was beloved by many for many years,” Greenish says. “But today’s children’s attention spans are getting a little shorter. Unfortunately, we have to design that way. We have to compete and recognize that digital space is not only changing the way adults consume information, it’s changing the way kids do, as well.”

“I feel like I get to channel my inner kid every day at work. I think back to my 8-year-old self and think: ‘Do I want to read this?’ ”

Within that redesign, Greenish discovered a favorite section of the magazine to work on: Brain Play. Before, the feature was a plain list of open-ended questions intended to spark kids’ creativity. Now he rearranges the questions across the spread in fun ways, uses color and adds in silly illustrations, like the time he created an image of doughnuts on trees for a question about what foods grow on trees.

“It’s the most challenging spread to work on, but it’s a chance for me to be most creative and to let kids go wild with their imagination,” Greenish says. “I feel like I get to channel my inner kid every day at work. I think back to my 8-year-old self and think: ‘Do I want to read this?’ or ‘Would I want to do this puzzle?’ ”

A June 2013 Brain Play spread (left( features a simpler layout before Greenish began redesigning the magazine in 2014. Greenish’s April 2018 version of Brain Play (right) uses a more dynamic design.

Greenish’s 8-year-old self actually did read Highlights, so to work now for the magazine is a surreal experience for him. But growing up, he said he never had an interest in arts, despite his mother being an artist. It wasn’t until he came to UCF that he discovered he had the talent for graphic design. He initially came to the university to study forensics science, but later realized he “wasn’t wired for advanced chemistry.”

“I’m exposing a lot of these kids to different art styles that they didn’t even know existed. … It’s a big responsibility — and I think about it every day.”

“I visited an advisor and he asked me what was my favorite thing I worked on so far,” Greenish says. “It was a paper on dogs and fire investigations that included a layout. So he suggested graphic arts. I took some drawing classes and got As, so there was a talent there I had ignored.”

Before Greenish became design director, Highlights‘ covers (left) tried to pack as many images and headlines as it could. The magazine’s newer cover styles (right) offer cleaner illustrations and fewer headlines so readers are not overwhelmed.

Although he isn’t working directly with kids, Greenish is aware of the influence he may have in helping “the world’s most important people” discover their own talents. On his desk sits a reminder of this and a piece of inspiration. A young reader designed and mailed in her own Brain Play spread with her own original questions and illustrations.

“It was really flattering to know someone would replicate my work,” Greenish says. “I’m exposing a lot of these kids to different art styles that they didn’t even know existed and they probably don’t realize it but they’re taking it in subconsciously. It’s a big responsibility — and I think about it every day.”

To learn more about Highlights and watch the 44 Pages documentary Greenish is featured in, check out streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and YouTube.