When innovate can mean imitate

While iPad magazine apps shouldn’t ape their printed versions,
they would do well to take influence from the way we navigate them

As more magazine apps for the iPad appear, the issues surrounding their creation become clearer. Problems include file sizes, shoehorning their creation into the print workflow, subscription plans and even the justification for publishing one in the first place. With so many practical problems to resolve it’s easy to overlook the creative and, in particular, navigation.

Whatever else the iPad is, it has served as a reminder of what great content navigation devices printed magazine are. But what is it that makes them so easy to navigate? Is it simply the ease of flicking through physical pages or is there more to it?

How magazines work
Let’s look at flicking first. This is an obvious win for print, as the tangible nature of the physical object immediately reveals a lot to the reader. The overall heft, the page size, the thickness and finish of the paper, and the number of pages all offer clues to the nature and character of the magazine while giving basic data on whether the reading experience will be a short or lengthy one. This is often a subconscious assessment, the pages being scanned to get a general impression. The same process also measures the reader’s position within the page flow: halfway through, near the end etc.
But these physical factors are just the starting point in a hierarchy of information that has developed over the 100 years or so of magazine publishing, a period of time during which publications have continually adapted their appearance to help guide the reader.

The brashness of today’s news-agent’s shelves is in part due to this desire to aid the reader. The bright masthead, the description line (from this magazine’s “Advertising, Design and Visual Culture” to Heat’s “The Week’s Hottest Celebrity News”), the ever-increasing burden of cover lines and colours all came about to help direct and explain, and by extension sell. Other rules exist here, such as page references to content inside, inviting the reader to dive straight in.

That technique is taken from the contents page, and would be meaningless without page numbers. These have become more complex as editors and designers attempt to apply ownership and signposting to every page.

Magazines now repeat their name alongside every page number, along with issue number and date. Traditionally these details appear at the bottom of the page, allowing other information to run at the top, ‘running heads’ labelling sections and reminding readers of the page’s content. Some magazines have become almost overloaded with visual and verbal devices as editorial teams seek to help the reader by creating difference between the various sections of their magazine. Monocle has contrived an A, B, C, D, E naming structure (for Affairs, Business, Culture, Design and Edits) that allows a strong graphic identity that is easily extended to their website. By contrast, Wired has a rich tech-orientated design language that is gorgeous in print but confuses in the digital realm as so many of the design elements reference web navigation.

Within these structural elements individual page designs can run free, providing the variation in pace that helps define character. These individual parts present their own navigation challenges. If text flows onto a following spread, does it require an arrow device to indicate that? How do you make clear which caption relates to which image? I’ve always considered that the addition of arrows, dividing rules or any other device purely for page navigation demonstrates a failure of the page design. Navigation at this level should be inherent in the design itself.

If all this sounds rather banal, it is precisely these basic elements that have presented the designer with the biggest challenges to date on the iPad. The temptation is to mimic print, but most such navigation is meaningless in this new environment, leaving many apps feeling like unmanageable seas of pages.

Experimental vs. traditional
Perhaps more can be learned from the experimental navigation found in projects like the late Sec magazine from Amsterdam. One issue used a tube-map like system of links from page to page, the front cover acting as the key. Another presented its content as a series of photographs of people in a gallery looking at the content as wall-mounted pieces, the onlookers sometimes blocking the view of the camera. Newly launched photography magazine Motley contains stories by nine photographers, but the pictures have been run together in a random order. Their provenance is indicated by the positioning of the image on the page, the cover running a grid with attribution by position.

Two new iPad apps raise interesting ideas. Firstly, new writing tool iA Writer has dropped the word count as a measure of length and replaced it with a measure of reading time. Whether such an idea can be adapted to magazine apps remains to be seen but must be worth considering. Mean-while The New Yorker app opens with a facsimile of its print cover, a full bleed illustration with only the logo interrupting the artwork. This mimics the subscriber edition of the magazine. But touch a button on the cover and the ‘flap’ that carries the cover lines on the newsstand edition appears. Touch these words and you’re sent to the content they refer to. It works well, a simple reflection of the print edition that combines a reassuring familiarity with smart functionality. Imitating print is often the wrong thing, but needn’t always be so.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

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