Magazine tablet apps and the battle of design vs. content

I found this recent article from the editor of the MIT Tech review on why apps for publishers are a bad idea touched on a number of key issues I have been observing since I first got into internet publishing in the 80s. I recommend the article, but if you insist, the short summary is that publishers of newspapers and magazines flocked to the idea of doing iPad apps because they could finally make something they that they sort of recognized as similar to a traditional publication; something they controlled and laid out, that was a combined unit. So they spent lots of money and ran into nightmares (having to design for both landscape and portrait on the tablet, as well as possibly on the phones or even Android.) and didn’t end up selling many subscriptions.

Since the dawn of publishing there has been a battle between design and content. This is not a battle that has or should have a single winner. Design is important to enjoyment of content, and products with better design are more loved by consumers and represent some of the biggest success stories. Creators of the content — the text in this case — point out that it is the text where you find the true value, the thing people are actually coming for. And on the technology side, the value of having a wide variety of platforms for content — from 30” desktop displays to laptops to tablets to phones, from colour video displays to static e-ink — is essential to a thriving marketplace and to innovation. Yet design remains so important that people will favour the iPhone just because they are all the same size, and most Android apps still can’t be used on Google TV.

This is also the war between things like PDF, which attempts to bring all the elements of paper-based design onto the computer, and the purest form of SGMLs, including both original and modern HTML. Between WYSIWYG and formatting languages, between semantic markup and design markup. This battle is quite old, and still going on. In the case of many designers, that is all they do, and the idea that a program should lay out text and other elements to fit a wide variety of display sizes and properties is anathema. To technologists, that layout should be fixed is almost as anathema.

Also included in this battle are the forces of centralization (everything on the web or in the cloud) and the distributed world (custom code on your personal device) and their cousins online and offline reading. A full treatise on all elements of this battle would take a book for it is far from simple.

The journey of HTML has been an interesting microcosm of this. HTML began very much like the typical non-WYSIWYG text formatting languages of the 70s, with semantic markup. As designers came to the web they rebelled at the idea that they could not design all they wanted, and HTML became full of hacks and official kludges to allow layout control. The W3C forces rebelled and simplified HTML and put all the layout into stylesheets (CSS) and that is a good solution that most people seem to like even if none are perfectly happy. Then Javascript took over and documents became interactive, and could do all sorts of fancy things you might design, but became less portable and reliable. Web sites bloated to megabytes and quad-core computers with gigs of ram browsed the web slowly.

I sit mostly with the technologists, eager to divide design from content. I still write all my documents in text formatting languages with visible markup and use WYSIWYG text editors only rarely. An ideal system that does both is still hard to find. Yet I can’t deny the value and success of good design and believe the best path is to compromises in this battle. We need compromises in design and layout, we need compromises between the cloud and the dedicated application. End-user control leads to some amount of chaos. It’s chaos that is feared by designers and publishers and software creators, but it is also the chaos that gives us most of our good innovations, which come from the edge.

Let’s consider all the battles I perceive for the soul of how computing, networks and media work:

  • The design vs. semantics battle (outlined above)
  • The cloud vs. personal device
  • Mobile, small and limited in input vs. tethered, large screen and rich in input
  • Central control vs. the distributed bazaar (with so many aspects, such as)
    • The destination (facebook) vs. the portal (search engine)
    • The designed, uniform, curated experience (Apple) vs. the semi-curated (Android) vs. the entirely open (free software)
    • The social vs. the individual (and social comment threads vs. private blogs and sites)
  • The serial (email/blogs/RSS/USENET) vs. the browsed (web/wikis) vs. the sampled (facebook/twitter)
  • The reader-friendly (fancy sites, well filtered feeds) vs. writer friendly (social/wiki)

In most of these battles both sides have virtues, and I don’t know what the outcomes will be, but the original MITTR article contained some lessons for understanding them.

MIT article

I read that article too, and found it thought-provoking. I like your dichotomies. Long live chaos!

ebooks

You see this kind of discussion a lot on ebook sites, where authors complain about how they can't make their book look like they want it to do in (Kindle/epub/mobi/text/whatever).

I always wonder why it really matters, because HTML 1.0 hand-coded in ASCII provides a surprising amount of formatting control, and it doesn't seem to me that anything beyond that improves the delivery of the actual content (which, as you point out, is the text.)

"content" vs "text"

Dynamic graphics is one of the defining features of the computer as a medium. In this medium, the "content" needn't be plain text, with "design" as meaningless decoration.

One example: http://worrydream.com/ScientificCommunicationAsSequentialArt The "content" here is not just in the text, but in the juxtaposition of pictures and text, the layout, and the interactivity. The meaning is conveyed far more effectively than in the plain-text version (the original paper). The "design" here is not for the reader's enjoyment -- it's the primary carrier of the reader's understanding.

It is true that in most publishing today, design is mere decoration. But the potential of the medium lies in using these "design" aspects to convey meaning, and we need to keep that door as far open as possible.

It's somewhat ironic that you name "technologists" as the defenders of plain-text content, given that plain-text is technologically ancient. A more progressive technological stance would consider how we could use all our technological tools to convey meaning!

Expanded media

Oh, there is no disputing that you can do much more with the rich media. The question has mostly revolved around all the times when people are not doing that, but nonetheless want to focus on the design — to the detriment of the ease of use by the user.

Text with semantic markup doesn’t look as nice rendered by computers on a 100 devices as custom designed text does. But it renders on 100 devices, letting the user have the device they want.

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