Trailblazed by the iPad, with others reportedly mere months from release, tablets promise much. As Mike Haney, executive editor of Popular Science, points out, the tablet is "the first device that is small enough, and all-screen enough, to let you sit and lean back with it, as you would with a print magazine."
However, these are very early days. The format is new, and everything is up for grabs - it's an exciting time for editorial publishers. But it's a confusing time for readers. It doesn't help that every publication is trying something different, while attempting to establish a consistent gesture vocabulary for the industry. To bring up a contextual menu in Popular Science, for example, the reader must perform an upward two-finger stroke. Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, demands a one-finger press-and-hold; while a two-finger pinch on a Zinio magazine app zooms in and out, and in Time's vertical mode, that gesture changes the font size.
The only design element that's close to uniform so far is the use of miniature spreads to represent an issue's contents - but even that isn't consistently applied. Some of the early adopters have learned a great deal already about how readers interact with tablet publications. Popular Science was one of the first magazines available on the iPad, and was described by Steve Jobs as "really, really breakthrough". Its creation began several months before the magazine's publisher, Bonnier, even knew of the iPad's existence. Like a handful of other publishers, they had commissioned a design studio - in their case, London-based BERG - to imagine how magazines could be realised on a hitherto non-existent, but widely rumoured, tablet format. A prototype video of their creation, Mag+, was put on the web six weeks before the iPad was announced, to much acclaim.
Bonnier and BERG spent a long time thinking about what a digital magazine should be, deciding what qualities were important to keep from the print edition, and what principles should guide the process. "Once all of that hard groundwork is in place, you can then take those principles and apply them to specific design questions," says Haney.
What the team created was a publication that, unlike other iPad magazine apps, works with layers instead of frames. The main image for most stories appears as a background image, while the text scrolls vertically in a semi-translucent box. To make the text disappear and reappear, the reader simply presses the background image. Though this means that striking images can seem lost behind the text on the initial view, Haney says that the system has many advantages.
"With layers, the relationship between the images and the text can be dynamic, so my canvas isn't limited to whatever the screen dimensions are. I can keep the same image on the background for a thousand words flowing over it, because that's the image that fits with this section of the story. The other thing it lets the reader do is see the background image with a simple tap, rather than have to decide between reading a story and viewing a slideshow via a bunch of taps. It's challenging to design for because it's a different totally paradigm to what you're accustomed to, but once you get into it, it's really fun and really powerful."
Another early arrival on the iPad was Time, which launched, according to design director DW Pine III, exactly "40 days and nights" from the iPad's introduction. "We called it Project Noah," he laughs. "In that time, we virtually started from scratch to produce a weekly iPad magazine that maintained the look and feel of Time, while also utilising this new platform. Each day, the technology team discovered new ways to make it work, while we focused on the content, packaging, pacing and workflow."
In Time's case, the technology team was made up of two outside companies: WoodWing, which created Time's print publishing system; and Wonderfactory, a digital design company. According to Wonderfactory's creative director, Jared Cocken, they began with a series of questions: What was the core idea? What was the business strategy? What was the user experience? What would the hardware be capable of? How would publishing teams design for this new format, especially on a weekly basis? Was there a market for the content, and what was the audience looking for?
Once these had been answered, there was still much to consider beyond basic page layout: "You need to build two components for your users - a reading interface, and the content that resides inside it," Cocken explains. "It's similar to the relationship between a browser and a website. One is a shell that has global functions that allow you to move between pages, and the other is the content that you're navigating to. The browser, or reader, shouldn't get in the way of the content."
The original plan was that it would only be read with the iPad held horizontally. "Most of our photography is horizontal," says Pine, "and we were used to magazine spreads. However, when we actually held an iPad, we noticed that we mainly held the device vertically. So, with a week to go, we had to come up with a vertical solution. That said, I think users interact with it in different ways - some always vertical, some always horizontal, and some like to rotate it per story to see which provides the best experience."
Although the content is pretty much identical, the different orientations of the Time app are quite distinctive. The portrait mode feels more text-heavy, with smaller images. It also allows the reader to change the font size of the single-column text blocks. Most landscape designs, however, contain two-column fixed-size text, more full-screen images and video.
The iPad edition goes further than just retooling the print edition. "We average more than 10 videos a week," says Pine. "We also have dozens of extra photos each week, and we created a section called TimeFrames (the five best pictures of the week) that we don't do in print."
As a daily paper, The Times has a more immediate challenge in translating its content at short notice. Design director Jon Hill opted for a grid that would feel familiar for its readers - three-column in portrait, four-column in landscape, with single-column leaders and opinion pieces - which means that copy doesn't fit neatly to the end of each page.
"It was more important that our journalism retained its authority, and the reader felt the weight of its 225-year legacy," Hill explains. "Pages that look similar to a newspaper on the screen will hopefully reassure readers that they're getting the full Times experience.
"Increasingly, material such as video, audio, infographics and slideshows are researched and commissioned for the website and the app. The device offers so many opportunities for interaction, and an increasingly curious audience will demand more and more. A straight, 500-word story will not be as well received as a story with supporting pictures, videos or graphics."
In retrospect, Hill wishes that they hadn't bothered designing for both orientations. "We'll see more apps that behave completely differently depending on the orientation, rather than try and replicate content for both," he says.
Other publishers want a tablet presence, but prefer a middle way in the short-term through a third-party provider such as Zinio, which hosts tablet editions of leading publications such as Total Film, T3 and Digital Camera, not to mention Computer Arts' very own Book of Inspiration and Creative Pro's Guide to iPad, with the magazine itself due to follow very soon.
In many cases, these are little more than browsable PDFs but, according to Zinio's chief marketing officer Jeanniey Mullen, it advises its clients' designers to "think about why the owner of the iPad bought the device - entertainment and access - and then consider how your magazine can drive that forward.
"The most successful iPad magazines are those that think about intelligent ways to update their layout, like adding extra photos or strategically supplementing content," she continues.
Zinio offers its clients a checklist of 'best practices' to help attract readers, including animating covers, and ensuring at least 10 interactive elements in every issue. However, Mullen also advises that all designers think beyond the iPad: "It's just the tip of the innovation iceberg."
Magazine designer Jeremy Leslie is currently working on designs for a tablet edition of a mainstream title, as well as the launch of a standalone magazine app. "iPad mags are all flawed in some way, but things will improve," he asserts. "Creatively, it's definitely a real challenge - but a very exciting one.
"As ever, as a designer you're stuck between the need to hit schedule and budget, while doing the best design possible. So same as usual, except there are no rules about what is and isn't good design. You can bring elements of print design and web design, but really this is a new thing altogether."