Saturday, March 12, 2011

Are Fine Editions The Same as Fine Apps?

I have before me two beautiful editions of Jane Eyre - one is the New York Public Library edition published in 1997 in conjunction with Doubleday's centennial  and the 150th anniversary of the text’s initial publication. The other edition is more recent, published in 2010 by White's Books a publisher specializing in artistic book cover design -- in this instance one designed by Petra Borner (  

Both editions have high-quality production values associated with them. Acid-free paper, good solid bindings,  The New York Public Library (NYPL) Edition is clearly a labor of both scholarship and pride. It features a brief biography of Charlotte Bronte with images not just of her but of manuscripts by and about the author of Jane Eyre, many of which are held in the NYPL collection. You see her written correspondence to a publisher signed as "Currer Bell", the pseudonym she used. There is a photo of her writing desk. These are not half-tones dropped in as an insert on photographic glossy stock but are instead are placed so expertly in the introduction that they do not intrude on the reader's experience of the primary text. Instead the supporting materials within this book’s binding are arranged to satisfy any curiosity on the part of that reader to know more of the text's background and context. 
The NYPL edition’s cover is less striking than the White’s edition, which according to the paper wrapped around the back cover at purchase reflects the artist's inspiration found in the natural symbolism of Jane Eyre with the intent of conveying “the brooding romanticism of the story”. The intent behind White's edition is to feature the cover art of the designer. The production values are perhaps even higher than those used for the NYPL edition; the quality of paper is superior as is the legibility delivered via combined font and leading on the page.

For real bibliophiles, these are important criteria. There is appreciation of the external packaging of the internal text.

What strikes me is that today (even as I type this) there is a panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX on the discussion of print as it impacts on the design of apps and other digital reading environments. From the panel’s descriptive abstract: ...Print Design is becoming an important influence in the evolution of Interaction Design. As a craft, design for printed media has a rich history. Several generations of designers have pushed its boundaries in countless directions. It has been shaped over several hundred years as both a functional and aesthetic discipline, with a deep foundation of principles, practices, theories, and professional dialogue. In comparison, Interaction and UI Design is still a relatively young field. Its history has largely been driven by technology and functional goals. The dialogue around it has been centered on usability, which has been its purpose in the context of technological advancement. The visual language of UI has evolved from that standpoint: that it should evoke the familiar, analog experience of tools, buttons, knobs, and dials. That foundation has led to a very specific visual language in interactive experiences. In the past ten years however, the relevant technologies that support the design of Interfaces - displays, processing speeds, and rendering engines - have matured to a point that they provide a more capable canvas for design. Meanwhile, our culture has become visibly more comfortable with the technologies that surround it. These combination of trends are creating an important inflection point for designers. The aesthetic experience of the digital surface can now be considered and explored in a more sophisticated manner.

Production values in a physical book matter. It is a visible demonstration as to whether this is a publication that someone deemed to be of such value as to deserve the best of treatment in production in order to attract the highest number of buyers at a sufficiently profitable price.

Knowing that bottom-of-the-line apps can cost in the range of $26,000, one wonders how we’re going to recognize quality in the digital reading environment. Will it just be determined through a slick interface (and I’m not intending to denigrate the difficulty of that achievement) but rather I’m wondering how long it will take for the navigational conventions as well as the packaging to be set for trade books in a digital environment.