Digital Directions: Does Design Matter in Digital Distribution?
The decision to off-load digital-content design from publisher to distributor was a pragmatic one and helped get these programs off the ground. But it raised the question of whether publishers should be doing design at all. The content was what the market wanted, after all.
Is Design Important?
Tim Jones, art director at Harvard University Press, thinks so. “It is strategic. Our mission is facilitating communication of ideas, and design—both how the information is structured and how the page is visually designed—is an important part of that. It is not about being the coolest kid on the block,” says Jones, “but in facilitating communication.
“Great book designers are great at framing communications,” Jones observes. “We are going to be bringing back an edition of the ‘Songs and Sonnets of John Donne.’ The designer [of the previous edition] did such a wonderful job 50 years ago in making an extraordinarily complex layout effortless for the reader. We owe it to readers to ensure that this kind of thoughtfulness isn’t lost.”
The value of design in aiding communication will resonate with all of us who have suffered through a poorly designed book or Web site. And Jones’ position is certainly consistent with the publisher’s mission of facilitating communication. However, what of economic realities? Is there a sufficient return on the increased investment for digital design? In other words, can we afford to do all this?
“We can’t afford not to,” asserts Sylvia Hecimovich, director of production and design for The University of Chicago Press Books Division. “Chicago has an award-winning design department that has proven abilities in successfully designing works across a wide spectrum of subjects. This has always been a selling point in acquiring authors as well as marketing finished works.”
While clarifying the strategic and economic importance of design in publishing organizations, both Jones and Hecimovich acknowledge the need for selective investment. Not all titles require—or warrant—the same level of design complexity. While works of fiction and standard scholarly monographs can be translated to digital delivery relatively easily, complex reference works require much more investment to work well across platforms. “When you take something like ‘The Chicago Manual of Style,’ which is both critically important to this organization and incredibly complex, we need to take direct involvement and great care to successfully bring it into digital distribution,” says Hecimovich.