Digital Directions: Does Design Matter in Digital Distribution?
An important characteristic of digital content is its ability to deliver to multiple platforms simultaneously—to print, Web and mobile channels. Invariably, the same content will look different when viewed on various output devices, and it should. Each device has its own display characteristics, and the design of the presentation should be optimized for that device. I can hear the groans from publishers already.
Reach for the ibuprofen now, because it gets worse: Content also varies within the same delivery medium. For example, content may be syndicated on the Web to multiple delivery partners, whose respective delivery models require alterations to the design. Even large-print paper editions require repagination and other adjustments.
This raises fundamental questions about the role of design in digital publishing:
• Do our production and design departments need to grapple with all these new modes of delivery?
• Should design of electronic content be the responsibility of the distribution partner or other external service provider rather than the publisher?
• For that matter, is design strategic at all? Is design an important competency for publishers to have internally?
These are tough questions. The answers are not obvious and will vary from organization to organization.
We were able to dodge this bullet somewhat when digital distribution and marketing programs initially asked for only Web-ready PDFs, digital facsimiles of what was printed on paper. “How nice,” many thought. “We can use the same design as the book. This won’t be so hard.”
However, it soon became evident that an image of the paper-page was by no means an optimal experience for Web delivery. For starters, the aspect ratio doesn’t match. And for mobile e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, they don’t work at all.
Moving away from the use of Web-ready PDFs is a daunting prospect. It requires design departments to understand and deliver multiple designs for different modes of delivery. So daunting is this prospect that many digital-delivery initiatives assumed that this production and design challenge was too great for book publishers to undertake, and the task was off-loaded to the channel partner. Programs as diverse as those of Questia and Project Caravan assumed that the publisher would deliver original-application (manuscript or layout) files from which the channel partner would create the final design for delivery.
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.
The ability or desire to invest and develop competency in digital-content design will vary from organization to organization. Indeed, it may vary across publishing programs within an organization. However, some common themes emerge:
• Strategy: Design is of strategic value. Design facilitates communication of content and is necessary to support the publishing organization’s brand to authors and the marketplace. Design is in the publisher’s vested interest.
• The hard truth: Each delivery device and platform will require differential design treatment to some degree.
• Technologies: “Web-ready” PDFs are not a long-term solution. PDFs allowed for some quick wins in digital delivery, helped everyone get their feet wet, and primed the digital ecosystem. But paper-page design will not provide optimal cross-platform presentation. Moving toward XML-based-production approaches will help support cross-device delivery, but the hard work of designing for different delivery modes remains. XML is a component to success, but not a panacea.
• Resources: Internal design staff needs to understand the design implications of the various digital channels and devices, whether they are directly involved in designing for these platforms or not. Digital design skills are key for all publishers.
Not all works can support high levels of direct staff design involvement—decide which titles and programs warrant it. If design is to be handled by distribution partners, your distribution agreements should include sign-off by staff designers before going live. If application files are submitted to distribution partners, ensure that licensing for fonts, illustrations and other embedded design components are consistent with such a hand-off.
I’ll be the first to admit it: This is a big deal for publishers, an area of long-term, fundamental change. It is also a key factor for successfully making the leap into digital content.
Andrew Brenneman is managing director of Finitiv, a digital media consultancy. He has 20 years of experience leading pioneering digital media initiatives in publishing and advertising, including NETg’s Skill Builder, Thomson Learning’s WebTutor, FreeMark Mail and MSDewey.com. Brenneman also founded the Digital Media Group of The University of Chicago Press Books Division, where he led digital distribution and the development of The Chicago Manual of Style Online.