Computer ArtsFeature

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 Cond 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."

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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."

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