Designing the future of publishing

I recently produced a video conversation, about the future of publishing, between Adobe XD VP Michael Gough and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly – you can watch it now on Adobe’s Inspire website. O’Reilly did most of the talking – he’s a great talker – and in the course of things, repeatedly and forcefully made the point that in trying to cope with, and take advantage of, the move to e-publishing, publishers need to focus on what he calls their traditional “curatory” role. That is, they need carefully to choose what content to produce for which users, and present it in forms that suit those users’ needs. Just as they always have, he argues, publishers will succeed or fail based on how well they perform this task.

But the e-publishing revolution has made curation much more complex. Customers have many more ways to spend their time and money, and so have become much more demanding, and traditional publishers have seen their markets both shrink and fragment. O’Reilly has done a better job than most of coping with these changes. In large part, this is because, unlike many of its peers, it hasn’t stuck to publishing in one format – in its case, physical books – just because that’s what it knows how to do. Rather, it puts out most content items in multiple media and formats, choosing each medium-format combination to suit the “job” the content will do, for a particular group of users – the jobs being educating, entertaining, or serving as reference material. Following this strategy hasn’t led O’Reilly to abandon books. But now it’s also a leading publisher of videos, websites, blogs, and e-books. And it’s been highly successful in getting content to users via a broad array of conferences and seminars.

Signal vs. noise

O’Reilly’s success suggests that other traditional print publishers will need not just to move into e-publishing, but also give their customers content in a variety of electronic formats. And as they do so, their designers will face an array of challenges and opportunities.

Design has always been a critical component of print publishing. Print designers package and present content in ways that make it easy and pleasant to read and to have. This will continue to be design’s role as print publishers expand their digital offerings – and indeed, that role will be more important than ever. The next few years will no doubt be a period of experimentation in this space – the creation and deployment of all manner of e-reading apps and devices, and e-publication formats for content that’s traditionally been published in printed form. Designers’ contributions will go a long way toward determining which succeed and which fail. And in this, they will play an important part in shaping the future of publishing, both as an activity, and as an industry.

Tim O’Reilly notes that “picking signal from the noise” is an apt analogy for publishing’s curatorial function. Publishing designers do this too, in crafting presentations – most notably, periodical layouts – that feature certain content, with other content smaller and harder to find. The size and prominence of each item can be seen to depend, roughly, on the designer’s estimate of how many users will consider it to be noise rather than signal. Print designers focus too, of course, on ensuring clarity of signal – choosing the most readable, attractive fonts for text, the right margins, the best reproduction formats for visuals, and so on.

To see how this works, look at any publication, electronic or print – consider, for example, the array of type sizes and fonts, and the layout, on the homescreen of the New York Times Reader.

Periodical publishers have already begun to tackle the signal vs. noise problems involved in redesigning their content presentations for electronic media. But book publishers have, in the main, not yet done so. They’re used to designing not just for print, but for a presentation medium – books – that generally contain nothing that couldn’t be construed as signal.

For them, the biggest design challenge, in moving to digital, will be one their industry already faces: dealing not just with noise, but with an exponentially expanding amount of it. With so many available media choices, users are increasingly picky about what content they’ll accept as “signal,” and what they’ll treat as “noise.” For an industry producing products whose use requires a significant time investment, this is a serious problem. This will be even more true as it moves to make those products available via devices that provide users with an array of appealing, easily accessible other means of spending both their time and their money.

Again, book houses will need to follow O’Reilly’s lead, and begin publishing in multiple formats. This could mean converting some of titles to hybrid text-video format, breaking others down into buy-by-the-chapter pieces, and with others, trying out different repackaging and reformatting strategies. But what about titles in those genres – novels, serious non-fiction narrative works, and the like – that still need to be published in text-heavy, book-length packages, meant to be consumed as integral, standalone products? After all, sales of these titles are this industry’s lifeblood. How can design make them palatable, to enough consumers, to enable that industry to transition successfully to the digital age?

The e-reader of the future?

This is more a device-design problem than a software or presentation-design problem. A huge block of text is just that, and other than picking the right text size and font, and providing easy navigation, and such features as bookmarking and commenting, there isn’t much to the basic problem of designing a text e-book, or the software to read it.

Which brings us to the problem of crafting a next-gen e-reading device – a topic about which plenty of people have been spilling plenty of ink, and e-ink, for some years now. Can a device designer, by solving the “signal vs. noise” problem, create an ideal e-reader, and thereby save the book industry?

Our designer would no doubt start by targeting serious readers. These users would want a fairly big screen with clear text reproduction, and those input controls they’d need to load and make their way through e-books, e-magazines, and other text content. Since sustained reading, for this type of user, is the rule rather than the exception, our designer might well go with a black-and-white screen and a minimally functional processor, to make the battery last as long as possible. The resulting device would no doubt look a lot like Amazon’s Kindle – which, for serious readers who don’t mind reading onscreen, delivers a fairly clear signal, and a great signal-to-noise ratio.

Of course, our device would be optimized to suit only one type of reading – of novels, historical biographies, and other content that contains only text, and requires sustained, intense focus.

Moreover, designing a device for readers doesn’t necessarily mean designing it for only the act of reading. After all, serious readers talk with others about what they’ve read, and share books, magazines, links to articles and blogposts. Many are also writers, and like to share what they’ve written, either informally, with friends, or by publishing it.

To meet their needs, our device designer might well go a different route. The result would be a device with a more powerful processor and input controls, to support it doing more than the Kindle. The display screen might be just as big, to support displaying, in addition to the content viewer, controls for publishing and sharing, windows to display metadata, messages from other users, and so forth.

Or the screen might be smaller, on the assumption that even the most serious readers don’t just sit on a couch for hours and read Tolstoy. They also read shorter works, in all sorts of places, and at least some of them would likely value a highly portable device over one with a big screen. And if our designer’s boss insists that most people don’t want to carry multiple portable devices, she’ll also build in a phone and camera, and make sure her processor can run not only an e-reading application, but plenty of other software too.

This device sounds pretty powerful – and at this point, it’s not really an “e-reader,” but an extremely portable computer. In one version, it could be an iPhone or Blackberry, with a larger screen, not to mention longer battery life and more power.

Congratulations to our designer – and to the engineers who’ve managed to build her device. Their product certainly seems to be a dream e-reader, satisfying the needs of everyone who’ll want or need to read on a device that’s as portable as a book or a magazine.

But in fact, it isn’t our ideal e-reader, at least not for everyone. To make it “broadly appealing,” our designer introduced what, for our first group of readers, will be little more than sources of noise, interfering with the signal of text on the screen. Consider too that for these readers – without whom traditional publishers wouldn’t survive – reading is, in many ways, about the pleasure they get from freeing themselves from the noise of life, and immersing themselves in the intense experience of engaging with a text.

Could this sort of reading really be done, comfortably and enjoyably, on a device that affords easy access to computing and communication functionality? No. Distractions become distractions because they’re annoying, tempting, or both – and such a device would be rotten with the tempting sort.

Let a thousand e-readers bloom. And a thousand presentation formats, and a thousand publishers, and…

What does this mean for the future of the e-reader space? Will we see a bifurcated market, with our first group buying gussied-up descendants of the Kindle, and the second preferring tablet-style computers? It’s hard to imagine that this won’t happen. Designers, and device and software makers, can’t create a product that simultaneously includes all the features that keep social and casual readers happy, while at the same time leaving those same features out, to give serious readers the serenity they crave.

What about presentations formats? Will the dominance of physical books be replaced by the dominance of e-books? Not likely. More than likely, book house that transition successfully to digital will follow O’Reilly’s lead, by turning many or even most of their “book” titles into all manner of content items, many of which require the user to invest much less money and time to buy and consume. Yes, novels and so forth will remain integral, and be available in standalone digital form – perhaps with many coming out in print as well. But it seems likely that there will be a myriad of digital presentation formats for text-heavy content, and, at least during a near-term period of experimentation, none of them will be as dominant as books once were.

Finally, the publishing industry’s ongoing fragmentation shows us that there will be no dominant company in this space either. No doubt we’ve seen the last of “publishing” residing in a several square-mile chunk of Manhattan, and it’s hard to imagine that it will suddenly re-coalesce in some other spot. Indeed, with blogs, Twitter, and the like enabling millions to become content producers and distributors, the notion of a “publishing industry” may come to seem almost quaint.

Many publishing traditionalists look at all these changes and see chaos, and worry about what will happen to the endeavor to which they’ve dedicated their careers. But there’s another view of what’s going on in publishing, one that Tim O’Reilly shares. One that focuses on the next few years as a time of great excitement, with opportunities abounding for creative “book” publishers, writers and other content creators – and the designers who’ll shape the way their works are packaged and consumed. While it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say now what their work will lead to, we can say for sure that it will play an enormously important, perhaps foundational, role, in creating a new sort of publishing, for the digital age.