Digital Structure, Digital Design

Issues and Developments in Designing Electronic Publications

(author's note: this document was written for Scholarly Publishing, vol 28, number 1, October, 1996. Since it was designed for a print journal, it does not necessarily conform to its tenets; that is, this presentation is for free, and I'm not willing to spend oodles of time on it. See some of the electronic publications I've done to get demonstrations.)

The most important part of a painting is not its colors, its perspective, or even its subject.
Rather, the most important part is its frame.

John Williams
National Book Award winning writer

Good design is the process of solving the problem posed by the manuscript.
Richard Eckersley
Zillions of awards-winning designer
University of Nebraska Press

The scholarly publication within a digital framework is a different design problem than most of us have faced. We are accustomed to the frame of the page as our guide; accustomed to modifying the contents subtly, to achieve comfortable novelty; accustomed to modifying gutters, running head placement, leading, typeface, paper quality, and the rest in ways that implicitly and explicitly refer to every other book that the designer has ever seen.

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.

General Rules of Thumb

Specific Rules of Thumb

Generic Issues for Design

Content Demands
The medium will, of course, dictate what's possible; on-screen presentation is still deeply primitive, as is the network and the human interface to digital information. But if we're publishing for the next three years, we have to work within our constraints.

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:

Purpose of publication
The publisher's intent is, of course, a vital consideration for digital design as well. Is this a work whose publication is for the betterment of humankind? Is this work's primary purpose one of profit? Is speed essential? Is it to capture a market? Enlarge one's list? Attract new authors? Identifying the publisher's (and the work's) purpose early on in the publication process is advised.

Use of Publication
Related, but perhaps even more important, is the question of how the publication is expected to be *used* by the audience. Will it be used by teachers as a pedagogical tool? If so, rapid and easy finding aids are required. If it's individual enrichment--one person working with the content, reading it once--then a design that unravels the information in sequence might be appropriate. If it's part of a larger collection, then the needs of the many may outweigh the unique needs of the work in question.

A technically adept reader won't have trouble running an animation inside of a helper app which she might have to install separately from a Web browser. However, if your readers are likely to be technical novices, then extremely explicit and detailed instructions may be required for any digital publication, whether CDROM or floppy disk or Web subscription. Similarly, if getting to the content fast, without frills, tends to be the personality type of your primary audience, then don't waste time (yours *or* theirs) in bandwidth-hogging eye candy.

  • broad narrow
  • institutional individual
  • technically adept technically novice
  • just-the-facts aesthetic Market
    Who reads your content may differ from who buys it, and in that case both may need to be considered, especially in terms of the design of a publication for online access. While bandwidth hogs are never appreciated in the online culture, graphics-intensive publications are more easily justified if your market is institutional purchasers for university audiences--that is, for readers who are likely to read on campus, at Ethernet speeds, with fairly high-quality hardware. If the market is comprised of non-institutional individuals, then you should be sure to offer, from the home page of an online document, a graphically light version, so that those operating with a 14.4 modem might possibly get some value out of reading your content online.

    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.

  • non-institutional individuals (slowish modems ca 2 yrs)
  • institutional/university individuals (high-speed modems/ethernet)
  • library/institutional purchases (ethernet)

    New Possibilities

    The biggest set of freedoms are also the biggest set of dangers (as one would expect). Take some lessons from writing: avoid adverbs, write what you know, keep it simple. Or, if you're a more visual thinker, remember those hideous flyers, ads, and mailers we got, not long after Macintoshes came out--those ones with the subtext of "look at all the fonts I have on my new computer!" That kind of work never gets read.

    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:

    Designing by Choice

    As I quoted from Richard Eckersley at the beginning of this piece, "good design is the process of solving the problem posed by the manuscript." The project itself must be the genesis of the design. How best can digital design serve the needs of the content? How best can we, as publishers, illuminate the value of the content through the design?

    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.

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