The Constant Reader

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Among the legends of computer typography, two stand out. There’s an 18-year-old Steve Jobs stumbling into a calligraphy class at Reed College and learning about serifs and spacing—useless stuff, he thought, until it came time to design the first Mac. Then there’s Bill Hill and the coyote. An eccentric Glaswegian who sometimes still wears a kilt to his job as director of advanced reading technologies at Microsoft, Hill was tracking animals near his home when he had an epiphany: He was reading the tracks as if they were letters. Based on that notion, he wrote a treatise on pattern recognition, typography, and electronic reading. From the moment Bill Gates saw it, Microsoft got serious about e-reading.

Nick Bilton thinks about this often, sitting in the offices of The New York Times’ digital research and development lab. Bilton, who holds the dual title of art director and user-interface specialist, is the point person for Times Reader, one of the first of a new genre of Microsoft-developed digital publications that combine polished typography, tighter page design, and improved interfaces to take online reading beyond the browser.

Released this spring after a year of development and beta testing, the Reader runs as a stand-alone application—Windows only, for now—and pulls the Times’ web feeds into a custom-designed interface, with beautifully rendered versions of the print newspaper’s Cheltenham headlines, body text laid out in columns that adjust to fit the window size, and generous images. Since the Reader downloads the entire paper all at once, it snaps instantly among articles—no waiting for that movie review to inch onto the screen. And it can be read offline, ideally on a magazine-size tablet PC like the one above. (Times Reader is available for $14.95 a month, or free for print subscribers to the paper.) Add save, print, and email tools to the mix and (inevitably) animated ads, and the package begins to define a new middle ground in online publications, somewhere between an impossibly crisp website and a live, updateable PDF.

The Times isn’t alone in the effort: Both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the U.K.’s Daily Mail have partnered with Microsoft on similar programs, albeit in a more tabloid-like style. For Bilton and the Times, though, the Reader is all about using design to better communicate the news. “Before this, I took for granted whatever tools I had to work with—whether CSS or Flash or whatever,” Bilton says. “But when I saw the capabilities we had with this, it showed how design plays such an important role in the hierarchy of news.” Part of this is straight branding: While has become iconic in its own right, its design will never be as instantly recognizable as the paper’s—not, at least, while web browsers depend on system fonts. But more important is the news judgment conveyed by the print version’s variations of typeface, type size, and layout—a ranking that, in the case of the Times, often defines the news of the day. To design the Reader, Bilton and his colleagues tapped elements from the Times’ print and web incarnations. There are alternating italic and non-italic Cheltenham headlines (as in the paper), and red “last updated” time stamps (as on the website). The combination brings clearer news judgment to the screen—without sacrificing immediacy, as did past attempts at PDF versions of the Times.

Considering how intuitive the Reader feels, the technology is fairly complicated. Called Windows Presentation Foundation—a “rich media platform,” as Microsoft describes it, built into the new Vista operating system—it promises to pretty up the Microsoft world considerably. As senior product manager Parimal Deshpande puts it, WPF is about “making designers first-class citizens.” In addition to built-in support for ClearType fonts (which subdivide each screen pixel to create sharper letterforms), WPF allows designers to “describe” the user interface, rather than having to pass off Photoshop files to a programmer. It also allows for deeper access than a browser provides to the computer’s full capabilities, like a graphics processor or a web cam. Along with Silverlight, the more limited non-Windows version, WPF is already being used for bank ATMs, graphics-heavy professional real estate analysis tools, and the new Vista version of Yahoo! Messenger.

Not surprisingly, Adobe is already competing. Its recently announced Apollo allows Flash and Ajax (among other programming languages) to run outside of the web browser as stand-alone applications. That means you could potentially write eBay sales descriptions and insert photos offline, then upload them later, or use your Gmail account without a live web connection. “It’s a definite shift,” explains Lee Brimelow, senior design technologist at Frog, the interactive design and strategy firm, who worked on the WPF-based Yahoo! Messenger and blogs about Apollo at “A couple of years ago, people said everything would move into the browser, but now it’s reversing.” He partly credits the dominance of laptops, with their often intermittent internet connections. But the shift is also being driven by companies’ desire to “push the brand onto the desktop,” Brimelow says, for everything from photo sharing to grocery shopping. “People have pretty much taken websites as far as they can go,” he adds.

When it comes to publications, the Times Reader as it stands today suggests only some of the possibilities of these new technologies. The ubiquity of YouTube indicates a larger role for multimedia storytelling. There’s also a lot more to gain than there was a decade ago from the CD-ROM, the predecessor of the Reader—especially as a new generation of portable devices enters the field. But ultimately, for Bilton—and for all of us—it all comes back to readability. “I’m on a personal quest to make people read,” he says. “And for now, the internet doesn’t do that.”