Tuesday, 3 September 2013

OUGD601 // Dissertation // What's next for digital publishing

As tablet-based publishing steps up, Tom Dennis finds out what new technologies and skillsets are shaping the future of editorial design

If 2010 was the year of the iPad, it was also the year that the publishing industry experimented with digital magazines, and ultimately came up short. The likes of Wired, Vogue and Popular Science might have impressed with their design, but readers were less than enthralled. Large downloads, slow renders and a distinct ambiguity between where and how readers should engage with articles left many underwhelmed. And the numbers didn't make for pretty reading, either.

At the tail end of 2010, a study by Research2Guidance reported that Condé Nast's US Wired iPad magazine sold 73,000 copies when it launched in May 2010. By November, this had fallen to 23,000. Vanity Fair sold 10,500 of its digital edition in October but then 8,700 in November, and GQ's average fell from 13,000 in October to 11,000 in November.

Not only are such figures totally unsustainable for publishers, they also prove that app-based editorial design simply hasn't got it right yet. The same content worked successfully for readers in a print environment, so where has it gone wrong for tablets?

"A lot of presumptions have been proved wrong in digital magazine design," states Information Architects' (iA) Oliver Reichenstein, a renowned user experience (UX) and interactive designer whose own app, Writer, has been celebrated for its tablet suitability. His analysis of the digital publication market on the iA blog is both forthright and rational, and he makes some highly pertinent points on the current trend for digital mimicking print.

"Firstly, the iPad is not a 'lean back' medium; 'lean forward' music apps work perfectly well on it," he says. "Two, people can live without flipping pages. Most designs that are based on the paper metaphor excite for a minute, then quickly start to bore! Thirdly, people don't need the old aesthetic for its own sake; multicolumn layouts on an A6 canvas with A5 granularity is just plain nuts. Finally, the reader doesn't really give a shit about the nostalgic closed reading experience with a beginning and end.

"So far, the iPad is not the saviour of the old print model but a Trojan Horse," he concludes. "Most iPad magazines show what doesn't work."

The most popular mechanism for deploying magazines on the iPad and Android operating systems is via their app stores. Publishers like this because it offers a pay-walled approach and delivers their branding, though they dislike it for the lack of subscriber information and Apple's 30 per cent revenue grab.

For traditional print designers, an app-based approach entails a conversion plug-in that simply takes a typical InDesign document and readies it for digital. They are offered extra parameters in the layout stage, such as carousel image galleries and video boxes, and a 'live layer' is then overlaid upon the design that links to the hosted content via XML.

WoodWing is one such solution, while Adobe has launched its own Digital Publishing Suite that takes InDesign layouts and converts them to the .issue (soon to be .folio) format. Even Quark is in on the game with the release of its iPad Publishing Service for QuarkXPress.

The boon for designers is that they don't need to learn any new technical skills. Layouts still flow to a grid, and the production flow is not unnecessarily cluttered with hours of programming. The uploading and linking of interactive content is taken care of in the production stage, letting designers focus on layout.

Yet this facsimile approach doesn't favour designers and readers. It favours publishers, as MagCulture.com and Colophon co-founder Jeremy Leslie points out: "WoodWing and Adobe DPS are useful testing tools for the new medium. They are huge distractions for publishers, however. They rely on the relative ease of using InDesign to create the app 'pages', and many large publishers jump at the synergy of design and production teams using existing staff to create apps.

"The iPad is a very unforgiving environment for random decoration and design elements," Leslie continues. "If any magazine designer thinks they can sleepwalk into creating an app, they'll soon find out it's not that simple. It's back to square one, re-assessing your editorial project and figuring a way forward."

In contrast to the traditional magazine approach of regular issues, unique content and bespoke design is the content-serving approach. Take Flipboard, for example. It is still an app, but one that can be personalised with reader-selected content, and can be replicated in-browser. TweetMag is a similar concept, but this and Flipboard are, from a design point of view, more akin to web design where a one-off template is created and new content deployed into this skin.

These concepts do hint at the direction publications may move toward, though. Flipboard shows interesting potential for serving automatically designed content, because it's neither a magazine nor a website but a satisfying hybrid that shows a possible way forward. Still, in examples like these the designer's role is in creating a one-off template, reducing the creative potential of the app. Like front-end web design, Photoshop, Fireworks and Dreamweaver are the tools of choice, as well as an understanding of JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS.

The sensible money is on a union of the app-based model paired with the flexibility and openness of a content-server approach proving successful. If the publishers find a way to make the economics of this model work, it could be the next standard for designers to work in.

So what technical skills should designers covet in preparation for this new dawn of digital publishing? The answer, for now at least, is nothing radical. Digital magazines bear closer comparison to websites. User experience, navigation and a clear hierarchy of content are imperative to successful digital magazine design, as is an appreciation of the reader and the content they want to interact with.

"On the one hand, print design at its best is about understanding how a magazine or newspaper is produced and how readers read it," says John-Henry Barac of Barac Consulting, who created The Guardian's well-received iPhone app. "On the other, it's about who those readers are and what they like."

Barac believes the role of the traditional designer is not outmoded in digital publications, rather their core skills form a solid base. But that base needs to be augmented with an appreciation of the technical capabilities that apps offer.

"Designers bring a particular perspective, taste and hopefully courage to what they do," remarks Barac on their strengths. "These skills are not limited to one platform. However, designing for apps does require other skills: an understanding or readiness to learn about user interface, animation and structuring, so the content is easy to navigate. It's also important to talk to developers, and pick up enough about their skills to know what's possible."

This opinion is shared by Oliver Reichenstein. He believes that traditional print design skills, such as typography use, colour and image choice paired with a sensible grid structure, will still have their place. But designers need to recognise the technical differences in formats before they can reach creative potential.

"Even the typographic sensitivity for digital magazines is of a completely different nature," says Reichenstein. "Print magazines are made to flip. Digital magazines should be structured in a way that requires as few interactions as possible. Low input, high output is the magic formula of good interface design."

Reichenstein also points out that tablet-based publication design is hampered by the lack of bespoke design elements available. Standard web fonts are often too small, while print fonts are generally too large. Couple this with the huge differences in contrast and reading distance, and the gulf between print and tablet design becomes clear.

"These aren't rules, they are guidelines," adds Reichenstein. "Bigger leading is key, with a wider measure [to compensate for a] further reading distance. Plus designers need to modify the contrast of their work - type on paper compared to a backlit display of a tablet is completely different," he reasons.

Regardless of the model of the tablet, the style of the digital edition, the reader profile, or the technical trappings available to bring the content to life, Jeremy Leslie believes designers creating for digital magazines should remember the fundamentals of design above all else. "Print designers shouldn't enter the digital realm just because of a plug-in," Leslie explains, "but because they want to learn something completely new. One critical design skill that is common across print and iPad is that every part of the design has to be there for a reason."

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