Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How much design compromise?

Sadly, I am not at BEA this week, nor at the IDPF Digital Book 2010 conference being held in conjunction with it. But I am following the conference closely via Twitter and half a dozen blogs. I was interested to hear one book designer comment that we would just have to compromise our design standards for eBooks.

I understand where this designer is coming from, but I'm not quite in agreement. The truth is, we have to learn a whole different way of designing. We learned a certain kind of tool years ago that was created to design images on paper. Some of those images were letters that made up words. We could position them precisely where we wanted them and they would never dare to be in a different place the next time the book was opened. We could finely tune the spacing of characters (remember 1/50,000th of an em kerning?), rotate the text, hand draw parts of the book, add images and charts and tables, and it all turned out perfectly.

Well, if you design paper books, you can still use those tools and still create exactly the Renaissance masterpiece that you want to have.

But the Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook, iPad, laptop, and desktop computer are not made of paper. No ink hits the screen (no matter how they talk about eInk). The book bits that you design may be on a 3" iPhone screen when one person reads it or on a Kindle Deluxe when another person reads it. That means that for the first time since a human first put ink on paper, the design of books has to change. The tools have to change. The whole concept of what it means to "design" has to change. And fundamentally, designers have to change. Put down the X-acto knife and step away from the drawing board. (Ooops! That was the last publishing revolution!)

The tools of the eBook designer are XHTML and CSS. And now we have to go back to the basics of great book design and ask how can we make this a more pleasant reading experience. There is nothing in the OEB specification that will prevent you from designing a fantastic reading experience. Can't rotate the type on the page? Let it go. That was a different artform. Can't kern the space between characters? Let it go, that was a different technology. Can't use color? Can't have the exact typesize? Can't control the table-cell widths? LET IT GO!

Now that you've got your hands empty, look at what you can do and learn how to design with that. And always always always keep in mind that you are the only person in the world that will see what the eBook looks like on your computer screen. The people who look at your design will all look at it on their own screens, at their computer or eReader's resolution, with the particular little quirks that Kindle, iPad, Nook, or Sony have built into it. Yes, according to the IDPF spec, you can make a drop-cap. But none of those devices will display it. You can turn on hyphenation, but none of those devices support it yet. You can designate what media size certain attributes should be applied at, but most of these will ignore that you have a style sheet at all if you try. So instead, you learn the key features that will work across the entire range of devices, and you design for those.

Here is the dirty little secret of designing for eBooks. The less you try to control the position and size of things on the screen (i.e. treat it like paper), the more likely it is that your books will look well and thoughtfully designed.

There are a few little things that you can do to improve the look of your eBooks, and they aren't hard.
  1. Use the full range of legal XHTML elements when you create your docs. If you use only the "p" tag and create a new class for every element, nothing in your book will ever change or adapt for different reading devices. (Did you hear that Google Books? If you can identify different classes of "p" then you can assign them different element names in the first place!)

  2. Correct default settings that were developed for Web pages in browsers. eReader manufacturers blindly accepted the most popular display faults for Web browsers when they created their internal defaults. You don't have to accept space between paragraphs and no indents. You have the power to change them.

  3. Use flexible units that will appropriately change with the devices. The measurement units that you should use more than any others are "em" and the small, medium, large font sizes.

  4. Until and unless you have hyphenation working, align text to the left and don't try to justify it. Come on. You know what it was like to try to justify text on an old Mac in MacWrite. Don't do it!

And get both the OEB (IDPF) spec and the referenced W3C XHTML spec and memorize them. These are your tools for great design in the future.

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