Create A Keepsake Magazine With “Throughline Gems”

This year, I’ve been doing a lot — and I mean A LOT — of work on projects for schools celebrating 100 years, 150 years, even 200 years in the world.

Lots of folks are creating special issues — even additional issues — of their magazines as part of their celebrations.

Obviously, I love this!

As schools aim to create truly keepsake publications for these major milestones, I’ve been encouraging them to think more deeply about what makes a publication special  — not only earning the coffee table, but worth picking up again and again.

One set of small elements that can make a difference are what I call “throughline gems.”A throughline gem is a small, special, delightful item — an illustration or tiny editorial element — on a consistent theme that appears throughout your pages, but not necessarily on every page.

One example of these throughline gems that you might be familiar with is the New Yorker’s cartoons. The magazine has incredible storytelling and journalism on every page. But a dozen or so cartoons are also interspersed throughout each issue.

Like most people who read the magazine, I always page through the publication to read the cartoons first, and then go back and read the stories.In other words, these cartoons that serve as throughline gems and all but guarantee that readers will go through the magazine twice. (That doesn’t even count the themed spot illustrations that appear throughout each issue, which means many readers will look at every page THREE times.)

To be clear: this is an advanced technique, and I don’t recommend it to folks who are just trying to get a publication out the door every few months! But done well, these small details can significantly elevate a publication and make it feel like a beautiful, luxury object.So how do you create these throughline gems?Here are a few examples I’ve seen in consumer and alumni magazines.

Throughline gem #1: Bottom margin lists

One great place to put extra elements is along the bottom margin.

In consumer magazines, I’ve seen such bottom margins used for recommended music playlists, lists of “things we love,” and a list of action steps around an important social cause.

Here’s one from Real Simple that appeared as part of a major feature package:


I like these because they can appear across a department, a feature, or even a whole issue!

Throughline gem #2: Top margin mini-stories

The top margin offers even more valuable real estate, and can be used to include very tiny editorial bites: a blurb on new research, an award, or a fun fact about your school.

Here’s one example from Harvard Business Review:

HBR usually includes two or three of these top margin throughline gems in each issue, and it’s a fun entry point into a page.

Throughline gem #3: Corner flipbook

The absolute coolest throughline gem I’ve ever seen in an alumni magazine was in a risk-themed issue of Stanford Business.

In the bottom right hand corner of each spread, there is a tiny illustration. Readers who flip through the pages are treated to a delightful animation sequence: a plane flies by, a person leaps out, a parachute opens up, and the person lands in a cloud that speeds away.

It’s incredible — and a perfect encapsulation of the issue’s theme.

Throughline gem #4: Department-based blurbs

In each of the examples above, I’ve shared ideas that require carving out a specific space for an element — a margin or a corner. But that’s not required!


One of my favorite throughline gems is Esquire’s long-running “Rules” blurbs. In countless issues, it includes tiny, silly, bits of advice in its front of the book section: things like “Every dish can be improved with the addition of bacon.”

They always run in the front of the book, but not always in the same place across the page. They’re in top margins, bottom margins, and tucked into columns. Here’s a top margin example, and here’s the bottom margin featured above.

Bonus throughline gem: Cross-issue illustrations

All of the throughline gems I’ve described above are small elements that appear in a single issue. But if you’re really strategic, you can go even bigger, using the spine of several perfect-bound issues as a spot for a throughline gem.

Here’s one amazing example from Texas Monthly:

It takes readers a whole year to collect ’em all, as they say, but when they do, they’re treated to a really cool illustration of a Texas critter.

There aren’t a lot of institutional publications that could pull this off — it requires several fairly robust issues in a year, for starters — but if there is a surefire way to “create a keeper” this might be it.

Throughline gems are novel, they’re fun, and they show your reader that you care about the details. For your most important, keepsake publications, a throughline gem can be the perfect addition to the project.