Good design is the process of solving the problem posed by the manuscript.
Zillions of awards-winning designer
University of Nebraska Press
Nobody is accustomed to digital publications. There is essentially no heritage of previous digital publications that lets novelty be comfortable, no history of hypertext that can be referred back to.
Nonetheless, design of digital publications is not without a tether. The reading process is its own touchstone, the aesthetic of text something we all know. It's just that the enacting of the aesthetic, the facilitation of the reading process, doesn't seem as straightforward as it used to.
Digital design uses many of the same rules of thumb, the same truths, the same aphoristic choices that good old paper design uses. On top of those, however, are a bunch of new design problems--and design opportunities--that deserve their own treatment.
My goal in this essay is to communicate a perspective which I hope is useful to scholarly publishers as you design your websites, your CDROMs, your online publications.
I bring to the question of digital design a number of perspectives that I'll be using in the following somewhat-lengthy essay. My graduate work was in creative writing--the telling of stories, which oddly enough is part of any design decision one makes. I've been viewing and developing digital design of CDROMS and online publications for the last seven years from the perspective of an old typesetter, which I was professionally from 1983 to 1989. I was fortunate enough to work, at the end of my typesetting career, with one of the best book designers in the country. Finally, I was fortunate enough to work at digitally advanced scholarly presses (at the University of Nebraska Press, and now at the Johns Hopkins University Press), to work with real designer on the CDROM that won the most awards, and to have sole control of the design and structure of many electronic projects.
Though I'm not much of a visual designer, I feel like I've got some skill as a content designer. Unfortunately, much of what I've done will be unavailable for you to see. I'll need to do more explaining than I'd like, and make reference to some screen shots. "Show, don't tell" is the oldest saw in the writing trade, but much of what should be shown is the action of the design, not the presentation; the explanations will have to suffice.
I also believe that it'll be three years or so before we see a great deal of publications authored only for digital distribution. The writers of note are predominantly those who grew up teaching themselves to think and communicate in a linear fashion--in essay form, or monograph form, or presentational form. It's a wrenching change to author with hypertext in mind.
A reference work is, of course, an ideal hypertextual publication. One with lots of images and examples might be another. A novel, a monograph, a long sequential treatise wouldn't. Though you could design these last with easy on-screen reading in mind, it's somewhat silly to do so now. In five years, we'll have high-res screens in our pockets, and we'll be able to mix good hypertextual design with good page display.
How a document will be used is the other cardinal element--used both by a publisher and a reader. For the publisher, if it's frequently updated, then that demands a *very* tight structure of absolutely identical textual codes--the "style sheet" of the document--so that new content can be inserted or modified smoothly and predictably. If the content might be used later in another context, then identifiers of that content (file names, code specifics) should be unique and internally canonical, again for easy later meta-use. For the reader, structural continuity from update to update (or section to section), dependability of cues, and predictability of content navigation are all essential for comfort.
Some content qualities that have an impact on the structural design of a digital publication:
Similarly, 4x and 6x CDROM drives are almost necessary for high-grade full-motion video, which looks pretty awful on 1x and 2x speed CDROM drives. The institutional market--the libraries, for the most part--may be unlikely to have fast CDROM drives, since so many of them bought their hardware two or more years ago. However, the institutional purchasers may prefer to download (perhaps from CD) the entirety of the content, so that network speeds become the bottleneck, and so that more people can access the content.
The opportunities afforded by digital publication are as limitless as your imagination, but imagination is only communicable if it is kept in check. As I've tried to emphasize, *let the needs of the content guide your design*. But without taking advantage of the opportunities unique to digital publications, there's likely little point in publishing it in a digital medium.
As I said earlier, there are few authors ready to write with effective hypertext in mind. But more than a few publications have been forced into a linear form because there was no other method.
The University of Nebraska Press's Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography is a case in point. A collection of 5,000 mini-biographies of significant people who affected the American West, it was originally published in three volumes, in alpha order by last name. Each entry had name, primary role (photographer, medicine man, gunman, outlaw, explorer, etc.), and dates of birth and death. While the alpha order worked semiacceptably, especially with an index, the publication was complicated by a later addendum--a fourth volume, with its own index, also listed in alpha order.
For the various types of readers, a single order isn't optimal for all of them. Instead, we tried to present the information on the CD-ROM in a variety of contexts: Not only in alpha order, but also roughly chronologically. We then included listings by primary role (with the lists within each role able to be presented either alphabetically or chronologically); we also included special groupings--women of the west, outlaws and gunmen, religious leaders, members of the native american tribes, etc. In each listing, the name, role, and lifespan was presented as a link to the full entry. There was also, of course, full-text search capabilities. We also included portraits of the several hundred for whom images could be found and identified, and provided alpha and chron listings of all those.
This was not really a lot of bells and whistles. The expensive and complicated possibilities that were of limited use (such as allowing searching within each subgroup, or allowing sublistings of every person named "Mary," or identifying all people who had ever lived in or passed through New Mexico) we eschewed. We knew that there would be a somewhat defined market for the CD, and that it was as much an experiment for the Press as it was a publication with expectations of tremendous income.
Niceties--such as an attractive, specially designed onscreen typeface, graphic enrichments and menu continuities, and the like--were included, because at the time Windows did not enjoy hegemony, but DOS comprised 75% of the market. We wanted a beautiful CD that served a particular market (institutional and individual purchasers with an interest in history of the American West), and which gave readers a better vehicle than the books did.
This work had been forced into a print form, and we helped free it by making its utility more flexible: a chronological listing of the "Women of the West" was useful in different ways than an alpha listing of the significant Sioux included in the work. The labor involved took some ingenuity, but it was mostly all done using a text processing tool and a simple, flat-file database to generate the various listings. We designed it procedurally to fit our capabilities and the authoring tool, designed it structurally to fit the audience, and designed it graphically to be graceful and readable.
At the Johns Hopkins University Press, two online reference works are scheduled for December 1996--Walker's Mammals of the World, the standard desk reference for biologists, zoologists, ethologists, and the like; and The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. They are very different works, with different types of audiences; their structural design has benefitted by the influence of JHUP's other huge electronic publishing endeavor, Project Muse, which is making our 40 journals available online, which appeals to yet another set of audiences.
The Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism is chock-full of cross-references, and has several topic indices. Those are the primary navigation mechanisms. In print, it is in alpha order. In the digital form, we've provided the option of a separate set listing of the theorists (Derrida, Lacan, etc.) from the schools of thought (French, Myth Theory, Deconstruction, etc.). The indices are linked to their appropriate entries, of course, and jump immediately to the first instance of the indexed term. The entries are named canonically, meaning that if, in the future, we want to have the Guide be essentially an ancillary online dictionary/glossary/reference work (in a monograph, a reader sees a reference to Lacan, and can hyperlink to the Guide's entry on Lacan).
Walker's Mammals of the World, conversely, uses full-text search more directly. Every species isn't included in a full listing, because there are too many to be wieldy. However, from any genus entry, one can always instantly click up to the Family, or to the Order (the higher categories within the Class Mammalia). References to other works are linked so that the reader can jump directly to the first instance of MacCallum in the "works cited." Internal navigational links--with a coherent and consistent set of buttons at the top of every entry--aid the reader in finding what she is looking for.
In each of these, the intent is to provide a number of different lenses through which to perceive the content. It takes some extra labor, to be sure, but each of the above was designed for publication using relatively simple HTML tags, derived from the typesetting codes.
There are, of course, many more elements that, with the right content, would be the right design conclusion. These and some others are included below:
Without good design, the best material will go unread. With appropriate design, our creativity as publishers will be the added value which will make the content we strive so hard to provide, and take such pride in publishing, become as fully realized as it deserves.
These notes on design are necessarily generic, and will seem--in three to five years' time--woefully dated (Bandwidth? What's the problem?). But during those years, we will be establishing for ourselves the tenets of good design, and will be establishing expectations among our readers. Good design isn't flash--it's solid problem-solving. Creativity and insight will serve our publications better than all the flash and bluster that Microsoft, Disney, or Spielberg Inc. can throw at their electronic publications.
"Content is king," as Ted Turner said long ago, and if we let that king lead us, then we'll be able to provide our readers and authors what they expect: high quality, easy and rapid access, and reasonable cost. With those in place, the rest will follow.