Friday, February 5, 2010

Design is not important--right?

If you have bought eBooks and displayed them on your Sony Reader, Kindle, or even desktop, you've probably noticed that they don't look quite as good as paper books. I'm not talking about the quality or clarity of the type, the irritating black flash as the page turns, or the size of the screen. I'm talking about the simple fact that the page layout just doesn't make reading a pleasant experience. Here are a few of the problems that I've noticed and you probably have, too.
  1. The type is too crowded. The words bump up against the edge of the reading surface and the lines of type are too close together.

  2. There are both paragraph indents and they skip a line between paragraphs. It looks like you have three or four independent and unrelated blocks of text on every screen.

  3. Decorative drop capitals are missing or changed.

  4. Chapter headings start right up against the top of the screen, or might not even start on a new page.

  5. Either the type is not justified (aligned flush to both edges of the page) or the justification leaves huge white gaps in lines of type or rivers of white down the entire page. There's no hyphenation, either.

  6. Images are missing, poorly displayed, cut off at bottom or side, all in black and white, and often unreadable.

  7. Special layouts of page elements like tables and lists are either missing, squeezed down so small you can't read them, or so narrow that the type almost looks vertical instead of horizontal.

You may have your own sore spot with the layout on your reader that I haven't included here. Feel free to add it. But the big question is "Why?" Why is everything that we appreciate about paper books missing from the standard reading formats?

There are several reasons, some of them technological and some of them not. I'm going to deal with just one: design. In the first place, the vast bulk of eBooks on the market today, especially those that are "free" or not rights protected, is that a machine made them. Either the static layout of the book, preserved as a PDF file, was fed into a computer program that deduced which kinds of elements were what and pumped out a specification for each one that ignores the actual structure of the book, or a paper book was fed into a scanner and a computer program using optical character recognition converted the scanned image into text if it could and just kept pictures of a page or portion of a page where it couldn't recognize the type. These mechanical (computerized) methods do not think about the design of the book or the interpretation of what the original book designer was going for. They try to make readable text files out of the input and let the layout algorithms in the various devices do the rest of the work.

The result of this is that many devices and reading programs allow you as a reader to make adjustments to how the book is displayed to suit your individual reading preferences. Make the type bigger, choose the font you want to read, pick the line height (leading), and how big you want the margins. Every reader becomes a designer, and everything they read is forced into their design.

Of course real life human designers can design great looking eBooks that are not static (PDF) and that will look great on any device you play them on. But that brings me to the second reason most eBooks look less attractive than their print counterparts: hardly anyone knows how to design for a medium that isn't static. Even after a generation of using the World Wide Web, we are still taught how to put things in a position on a page in a specific size that we expect to remain the same for everyone who sees it. Look at your favorite Web page, for example, and start changing the size of the window it appears in. It is going to fall apart somewhere.

Well, technologically, any current eBook format that is not based on taking a picture of the paper page (PDF, Scans, DOC) is limited in what it can do by the prevailing standards for eBooks. Most are based on html in some way and have a specific set of elements and style representations that are legal, like ePub, Kindle, and LIT. But every designer's task has always been to design within the limitations that are imposed. We're just so used to those limitations being specific sizes (6x9 trade paperback, 2" x 2-column newspaper ad, 8 1/4" x 10 5/8" magazine layout, etc.) that we can't wrap our minds around how to design for a layout that might be 2" wide on an iPhone or 5" wide on a Kindle.

The result is a real loss to readers of eBooks. They can never experience the book the way a designer who understood the content and the medium intended it to be experienced. If we have an obstacle to over come as publishers of eBooks, this one looms much larger over the industry than whether consumers will pay $10 or $15 for their electronic bits, and may even be a part of why consumers do not consider their eBooks to be as valuable as the printed ones.

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