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.
The other option is to more or less abandon text formatting, and let the device handle display—to dynamically paginate and render the font, as is done on the Kindle. This approach provides the greatest flexibility to support varying displays, aspect ratios or even reader preferences. But at a cost: All experience design is missing from the work. All books look uniformly dull.
We Need a New Approach
Both the PDF-based and the device-based approaches to text formatting are unsatisfactory. We need an approach that gives designers the ability to fine-tune the visual experience of a book on screen with as much sophistication as they do on the page, but provide the flexibility to dynamically render the text to support a range of displays, screen orientations, and user preferences. I don't think this is too much to ask. The tools are here to make this possible: XML, cascading style sheets, HTML5, and so on. We just need to get down to business and understand how to make these technologies work together to create a successful mode of communication.
The health and well-being of publishing depends, in part, on our ability to render words on the digital page in a compelling way. And, when we solve that sticky wicket, we can, like Gutenberg, go to Frankfurt to tell the world. BB
Andrew Brenneman is founder of Finitiv (Finitiv.com), a consulting and services organization that develops and executes transformative digital strategy for publishers and other content organizations.