Magazines and the Reading Ecosystem
Two recent columns by Khoi Vinh and Mike Turro take on the future of magazines in a world of tablets. Khoi Vinh, former Design Director of the New York Times, argues that the current batch of iPad apps "run counter to how people use tablets today and, unless something changes, will remain at odds with the way people will use tablets as the medium matures." Certainly, the apps from magazines like Wired, the New Yorker and other Conde Nast publications are experiments in a new medium. What I appreciate is that, unlike when magazines went to the web, they are at least recognizable as magazines, with rich visual presentation and spreads that bring coherence to long, flowing text and images.
But, Vinh thinks that people are "decreasingly interested in" reading a magazine in the traditional fashion. He says, "The trajectory of content consumption favors apps [like Flipboard] that are more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de-sac of denial." In his estimation, people want to use magazines the way they do the internet: leaping from social media stream to one article after another.
On the other hand, Mike Turro, Director of Technology for the publisher of Wine Spectator and other major publications, gives a nice rebuttal to this assumption. "Magazines represent a coherent point of view ... that is even more necessary in an information environment that is predisposed to confirmation bias... We lose something when we always play the single and forget that it's actually part of an album." Magazines offer us a place to rest, to go deep, and to absorb a point of view. As Jon Stewart pointed out this weekend, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."
My question for the design community is this: What can we do as designers to give readers more than a parade of opinions streamed in real-time? How can we create coherence while addressing Vinh's point that people expect a "media world that looks increasingly like the busy downtown heart of a city — with innumerable activities, events and alternative sources of distraction around you?"
One idea that comes to mind is that designers can make use of context to give readers a bit of balance. For, while the current trend is for magazines to take advantage of the tablet form factor with its big screen and gestural interactions, we increasingly consume media on a variety of screens, even in the course of one article, show or book. I'd agree with Turro, that editorial publications need to remain editorial, and I'll even go so far as to say that the tablet is the natural place to mimic the immersive, focused experience of a magazine. Tablets are less portable, and more "lean back" than their handset counterparts. Laptops and televisions are even different beasts. Given that our publications are going digital one way or another, is it time to define an ecosystem of readability that flexes as readers move across platforms? Or is there another solution that doesn't turn the New Yorker into Gawker or the Drudge Report?
And, as someone who's designed products for those with low vision and dyslexia, I'll also point out that audible magazines present a ripe opportunity for innovation. Having gotten to a place where electronic text can be read aloud by computers, our jobs aren't over — they've only just begun. Here's hoping our magazine designers can embrace more than the visual presentation of material as they evolve their skills.