If the iPad manages to save publishing, that doesn’t mean it’s going to save publishing design.
[This article appears in the June 2010 issue of Print. Artwork by Ashkahn Shahparnia]
Even before the very first of Apple’s iPads landed in the hands of eager early adopters last week, the device had obtained such substantial notoriety that it now hardly needs any introduction at all. This roughly 10-by-8-inch computing tablet—billed by Apple as nothing short of “magical and revolutionary”—promises to change everything.
Implicit in this promise is some kind of salvation for the publishing industry: the iPad, and tablet devices in general, will reconstitute some of the “thingness” of magazines and therefore replicate some of the value—and business models—of published periodicals. Holding an iPad loaded with a digital edition of your favorite magazine will be so similar to holding an issue of its printed counterpart that it’ll just feel natural to pay real money for that content.
Or that’s the hope. To be sure, saving publishing is a difficult proposition, but if there’s a new computing paradigm that can pull it off, it is mobile computing, which by its very nature will continue to transform our relationship with digital content and services in the next decade. And if there’s anyone who can pull it off, it is iPad father Steve Jobs, whose preternatural ability to bend the future to his will goes unmatched. And if there’s anyone who wants it to happen, it is publishers—and publishing designers.
Going into this brave new world, the goals of publishers and publishing designers would seem to be naturally aligned, but this confluence of interests may not survive long. What publishers mean when they say they want to save publishing is that they want to derive enough revenue from the digital distribution of their content to support the ongoing, profitable production of that content. What designers mean when they say they want to save the publishing industry is that they want to save their jobs. Or save design jobs. Or at least preserve the way that publishing designers practice design. Which is to say that they want to continue to create editorially specific solutions using a wealth of skills and tools—typography, illustrations, photography, and ambitious layout creativity—that very much depend on the wealth of publishers.
This time-honored, analog-based equation has not been successfully replicated on the internet, where digital publishing has been so ruthlessly predicated on immediacy and efficiency that not a single major publication can afford to apply the benefits of editorial design to their content. What rules in digital publishing is not art direction and the craft of layout but, rather, design direction and the anticipatory technical dynamics of templating. Rare is the online publisher—or bedroom blogger even—who can find the resources to output content through any other method than “create once, use repeatedly” templates. This is why an article from your favorite magazine looks far less graphically rich online than it does in print.
When it comes to tablet devices, however, the vision put forward by publishers and publishing designers is one of free-form creativity and great multimedia riches. We can see this in some recent strawmen released to the public. Both Sports Illustrated and Wired have put forward conceptual video demonstrations to illustrate the potential of editorially rich content delivered via tablet. In these videos, nearly every article of every issue is rendered with an impressive level of multimedia production: dynamically changing content, three-dimensional rotations, audio and video supplements, and highly responsive bespoke interfaces.
Perhaps the “thingness” of tablet devices will support this kind of creativity, but it seems unlikely. While Apple is rightly famous for bringing an uncompromising level of design detail to their devices and platforms, the company has provided the iPad with surprisingly few typographic tools for designers and developers. For all its revolution and magic, it still doesn’t offer basic hyphenation or professional-quality justification controls, to say nothing of truly empowering tools for rich typography and layout. As a device for reading content, it will suffice; as a tool for delivering great graphic design, well, it’s not quite the future many designers had hoped for.
Of course, an enterprising third-party software publisher could remedy this by creating a new framework that would allow more flexible and precise layout control. Indeed, Adobe pledges to do just that with forthcoming software that will allow simultaneous “coauthoring” of print and tablet content. This is an enormous challenge Adobe has taken on, and even if it manages to create digital design tools far more nimble than anything we have today, it seems unlikely that it will also be able to overcome the even larger hurdle of time. All of those unique interactive features take time—lots of time—to create.
What’s more, there is evidence to suggest that the value publishing designers bring to the content is simply not enough value for digital consumers. A cursory survey of the apps on any random selection of iPhones, for example, reveals a few obvious generalities: Most paid apps, the ones generating real revenue, are functionally driven. They exist to perform specific tasks or to immerse users in worlds of play. They do not exist to deliver content.
In the end, it may be true that the motivation to preserve publishing design is no match for those tenets of efficiency and immediacy. Just as digital media has changed the physical laws of publishing, so, too, has it changed the physical laws of editorial design. Where once it was possible, even natural, for design to happen concurrently with editorial creation, now it simply cannot keep up. The pace is too rapid. As the reality of content production for the iPad dawns—as its sheer expense becomes evident—the visions of publishers and publishing designers will likely diverge.
None of this suggests that tablet devices can’t fundamentally reinvent the publishing industry. One longstanding bromide of the internet asserts that “content is king.” While that may not be entirely true, it stands to reason that the tremendous value that content provides to the internet can and will be monetized in some way. The iPad may very well be the right device at the right time to make that happen. But even if it can pull off that necessary and miraculous feat, it’s unlikely that it will also save publishing design—at least the way it’s published today.
More thoughts on this topic here.
[Khoi Vinh is the Design Director for NYTimes.com, where he leads the in-house design team in user experience innovation. He is also the author of the popular design weblog Subtraction.com, where he writes extensively on design, technology and user experience matters of all kinds. His new column for Print, "Interaction," debuts in the June 2010 issue.]