What About Design?
Let me be clear right upfront—I get very passionate about design. I love it when I see something that I consider well-designed, and I get frustrated as hell when I see the opposite.
In the business of publishing, design seems to have gotten shorter shrift as pennies have gotten pinched harder. While I'm not a designer (and I have the projects I designed as proof), nor have I even played one on TV, I have always managed the design function.
I've always believed that well-designed "stuff," in the long run, brings a higher value that gets recognized by the customer. Chip Kidd's book jackets and almost anything by Apple are the obvious examples. Design must start with serving the purpose required. In educational publishing, for example, the text design must enable the teacher and student to work with and understand the content. It must not make the text hard to read or make it difficult to find the next 1-hed. A trade jacket needs to catch the eye, as well as creatively represent the author and their book. A web site that is hard to read or navigate will be closed faster than you can say, "but what about our IPO?" And so on.
Design that is well done does not have to be expensive, a hindrance to publication, or a cause for increased tensions in the Middle East. In the higher ed world that I have lived in, I fully admit to being a leader in standardizing (ack! that awful word!) some designs that did not need more than that to enable designers to apply their talents to projects that would benefit from their creativity.
I still believe that, in some cases, good design is a differentiator. It does not make up for weak content, but the same content presented in a more pleasing and functional way will bring more customers. And bad design will turn customers away.
Which brings us to the evolution from print to non-print.
The same basic principles apply to non-print—design must be pleasing to the eye, of course. But more importantly design must add, not detract, to the functionality of the product. And it must take advantage of the opportunities presented by the platform. And in the non-print world these issues are, perhaps, even more inextricably bound.
Non-print products also provide so much more opportunity for creative use of the technology available and for design to shine, and so much more frustration when the design falls short of what it could be or should be.
By the same token, a designer (whether it's the website designer or the aesthetic designer), given the instruction of "make it look like the print version," are having their hands tied. It can "look" like the print book, but should do so much more. And this is where, I believe, so many non-print products fall short. Just recreating the print experience is a waste of great opportunities, and sells the customer short by not offering them something that's really different.
Of course, it's always great when someone else spouts off about design, so allow me to point you to a piece by Alice Rawsthorn in The New York Times. She talks about, what she considers to be, poor design of print magazines brought over to the iPad. Her first point is that the designers just seem to have brought over the print design.
Let's define our terms a little here. For an iPad app, the "designer" is probably not a designer in the same sense of a print product. Somebody gave thought to what the functionality of the app should be, as well it's appearance. And they made what, they probably believe to be, safe/conservative decisions.
What drives these conservative decisions? Is it assumptions about the customer—that they need more hand-holding to progress toward non-print? Is it a lack of understanding of the possibilities? A lack of vision of the future?
For some content, the future of non-print distribution is so bright we need sunglasses. Merely recreating the print version on an iPad just leads people to think, "Why should I pay $500 for an iPad to read a magazine?" And they're right.
I think that if we embrace the possibilities we can do much better.