To my surprise I’ve recently been using my iPhone more and more as a reading device. At first it was only The Guardian’s impressive (and now quite old in app years) headline app, giving customisable access to news stories as they occur. But now I regularly read posts from Aeon Magazine, the British Journal of Photography’s app and regular chunks of content saved via Instapaper.
It was The New Yorker app, published weekly and available free to print subscribers, that really got me into this habit. Its text-orientated content is ideally suited to the small retina-resolution screen, and subtle typographic touches and intelligent inclusion of the printed magazine’s cartoons and spot illustrations maintain its visual character. The navigation template provided by Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite is cleaner and simpler on the iPhone than on iPad apps. The screen-by-screen notation that you are on page ‘x of 135’ (that’s how long a major feature can run) is useful detail rather than over-designed intrusion. This is content pared down to its basic set of key characteristics: legible, easily navigated, the source visually recognisable.
The New Yorker app also represents two growing trends in digital publishing as we head into 2013 – that the premise should be simple and the volume of content clearly assigned. Both are exact reverses of the first magazine apps we saw produced for the iPad a couple of years ago. Apps such as US Wired’s early experiments were intensely over-specced, not just for the reader but for the editorial team assigned to produce the app on a monthly basis. The focus appeared to be on producing effects for early adopters to show off their new iPad rather than create something usable on a regular basis.
Don’t Homer it
In a recent blog post, Craig Mod described this ill-planned descent into complexity as being ‘Homer’d’, a reference to an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer designs his perfect car. He adds more cup holders and a bubble to soundproof the kids with little attention to the overall result. The vehicle he comes up with is a regular car with clumsily added extras rather than a clever reinvention or extension of a car. Sound familiar? (The full post is essential reading – see web address at bottom of page).
By necessity, the smaller scale of the smart phone screen is freeing us from such complexity. With so little real estate available for play the designer must focus on simplicity – extra cup holders added at whim here would be a disaster. Which is where The Guardian, The New Yorker and BJP apps all win – for their simplicity of use and their clarity of purpose. The Guardian provides news stories written for the next print edition as they’re completed, The New Yorker offers its entire weekly print edition, the BJP provides one-off pieces of additional content that fill a space between their print and tablet editions. There are increasing numbers of examples out there, and the challenge to designers is to keep things simple while establishing a recognisable visual identity on the tiny screen.
This clarity of purpose dictates volume of content, the second trend. In a digital realm of endless links onward there is a renewed interest in providing what Mod calls “the edge”, that is the point at which a packet of content ‘ends’. This isn’t only an actual end, but also means a clearly signalled end, in the sense that a reader can ‘feel’ whereabouts they are within a printed magazine without counting the pages.
Managing the arrival of content is a vital starting point; I aim for a single post per day on my magCulture blog, where possible published at either 09:23 or 14:23 to hit office start times in London and New York respectively. Aeon Magazine (disclosure: they’re a client) publish a single long-form essay every day, each clearly labelled with a word count and downloadable for reading later on your phone or tablet.
Perhaps the best current example of managed volume is new app The Magazine. Founded by Marco Arment, who had already launched one of the most disruptive content technologies of recent years, Instapaper, The Magazine is an iPhone/iPad publication that delivers four to six articles every fortnight.
Arment runs the entire thing on his own, commissioning essays and publishing them in a very simple but effective fashion. The clever part is its relationship to the wider web; the articles feature links but instead of taking you immediately to the linked website the reader first sees a footnote device that explains what the link is and invites the reader to share it. Thus the appetite to discover more is dealt with whilst not moving the reader away from the article. So simple, so effective.
We can expect more ‘publications’ like this as people seek to make sense of the mass of information out there. They’re not replacements for the web, rather the natural child of mixed print/digital parents. In his introduction to The Magazine, Arment boasts about his app’s lack of design elements. But New York start-up 29th Street Publishing is already offering an app creation service allowing publishers to distribute groups of articles using a well-designed and relatively flexible template system, something I hope to return to in a future column. Meanwhile check their launch apps The Awl and V as in Victor.