Digital Directions: The Redesign of Reading
Recently I visited the collection of rare books at The British Library. Among the panoply of priceless artifacts was a Gutenberg Bible. Alongside such monuments in the collection as the "Canterbury Tales" or the handwritten manuscript of "Jane Eyre," the Gutenberg Bible was less a cultural touchstone than a technical one. It was not that Gutenberg created any single core technology, but that he was able to take some of the coolest technologies of the mid 15th century—paper, type, oil-based inks—and create a communications solution.
It all seemed so familiar. Isn't that what so many of us are immersed in these past several years: understanding how to combine the enabling technologies available to us—mobile displays, Web services, and the like—to create communications solutions that offer new value to the audiences and content domains we address? Further, our goal is not so much to emulate Gutenberg—who was on such a bleeding edge that he was never able to successfully monetize his publishing operation—but those who came later, who successfully turned a profit from putting words on paper.
In the midst of so many transformative communications technologies, it seems we are not adequately exploiting those technologies that are historically fundamental to publishing: the design and formatting of text. Caught up in the dizzying world of rich media and interactive functionality, we are losing focus of the core issues relating to the display of text, much to our detriment.
A number of technologies are involved in formatting words on digital devices, including vector fonts, standards-based style sheets, and proprietary components such as PDF viewers. Yet somehow the community of publishers and the technologists with whom they collaborate have yet to solve or even address some fundamental challenges of making text look great on the digital "page."
The status quo is not pretty. One option is to use PDF for digital display, so that the page on the screen looks as polished as on paper. PDF, however, is inflexible in the support of screens with varying resolutions and aspect ratios. At this point, most accept the fact that the PDF is not ideal for screen display.