How to make your anniversary issue shine

Today, I’m excited to share some really cool anniversary issues — including some of the behind-the-scenes stories about their development and what makes them tick.

I hope you can adapt some of these ideas for your own anniversary projects, whatever the size.

1. Find a flexible, meaningful concept to organize your storytelling.

Last year, I did some consulting with Stevens Institute of Technology as they plotted out their 150th anniversary issue.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of storytelling you could do for a school with this much history!

But to make an issue that felt cohesive and meaningful, we needed a theme.

The right theme can imbue an anniversary publication with a larger sense of purpose. Counterintuitively, a theme can also help you generate more story ideas — and more creative ones.

After working with the team at Stevens and digging deep into the material they had already gathered, we came up with a simple theme: frontiers. But behind that simple theme were layers and layers of possibility.

Frontiers can be literal places (like a campus) or more figurative (like the limits of imagination).

We pulled at those threads to come up with five types of frontiers that increase in size and scope. And within each of those five different frontiers, we came up with unique approaches and storytelling devices.

You can see what I mean by looking at the table of contents above.

Think of the theme as a cool nesting doll of meaning and storytelling. Each story works on its own, but the stories also can be contained within larger sub- themes and themes.

Everything works together to support the larger idea of the issue and also celebrates the 150 years of the school itself.

2. Give yourself plenty of time. Really.

Dartmouth created a knockout issue for its 250th anniversary in 2019 — an effort that earned a CASE award. It was all possible because they were thinking ahead.

Here’s what the team said about that process as part of their submission package for a CASE award (the bold face is mine):

For this special issue to celebrate Dartmouth’s 250th anniversary, we tore up our regular format and reinvented our magazine with a new architecture, template and design. Our small staff spent several years planning the issue.

So what did that extra time allow them to do? Here’s how they put it:

We gathered a faculty panel and had fun as they came up with the college’s most influential alumni, which anchored the issue. We asked a Pulitzer-winning reporter to examine Dartmouth’s next 50 years. We dug deep into the archives here at Dartmouth; little is digitized, so we played Woodward and Bernstein culling through boxes and boxes of old letters to the college and found some gems. We unearthed offbeat tidbits of history and presented them with our entertaining sensibility and in a special fold out section. We commissioned posters. And so much more.

See the CASE page about their work here.

3. Get help!

I absolutely loved the way New Trail handled the 100th anniversary of its alumni magazine with an ambitious feature package that was carried across two issues.

Its “100 things we learned reading 100 years of New Trail” is a list structure, and it is executed with perfection.

It contains a good mix of strategic stories (research, alumni connections) and fun stories. Within the list format, it uses an incredibly creative approach to packaging and visual design. Q&A? Yep. Matching game? Yep. By the numbers section? Definitely. (Grab issues 1 and 2 here.)

I wasn’t the only one who adored it! So did CASE judges, who gave the first of the two issues a gold award for its cover — but couldn’t resist raving about the storytelling as well. Here’s an excerpt from the judge’s report (see the full report here):

The amount of research and thought that went into the project is impressive, and the result is really fun, nostalgic, and playful in the best way.

Editor-in-chief Lisa Cook told me that in addition to planning for the issue well in advance, they also got some help. Here’s what she says:

We were able to hire an intern to go through the entirety of the New Trail archives and create a spreadsheet of standout stories. Our intern was amazing! She noted recurring themes, cool stories and milestones, plus uncovered those stories that were just …. um, unique.

For instance, there was the essayist from the 1950s who imagined our campus in 2025 as being overrun with giant rabbits. (I mean, the way things are going, who knows!?) This spreadsheet was a godsend.

Guys, it is really hard to do a big anniversary package without some help! An intern, a handful of great freelancers, a consultant who can help you think big — the approach will look different for every school.

Anniversary issues are big swings. Give yourself every advantage you can so you can knock it out of the park.

4. Take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think really outside the box.

Centennials only come around once every hundred years, so if you don’t try something interesting now, WHEN WILL YOU? Your sesquicentennial?

Yeah, that’s what Carleton did.

For their 150th anniversary issue, they tried all sorts of ambitious storytelling: a “board game,” fiction (!), poetry (!!!).

While they did have a loose structure — features, brief histories, and a handful of top 10 lists — they basically just used the issue as a way to take a bunch of big swings!

I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to see what each spread would hold.

You’re going to have one chance to do a milestone anniversary like a centennial or sesquicentennial.

Go for it!