Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Essay: Electronic vs Print Layouts

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

John Joseph Adams has a post on Making e-Reading Easier and his solution is simple: flip the screen or switch to landscape format since our computer monitors support that shape. It's actually a brilliant idea and Dragon Magazine--Dungeon & Dragon's online magazine--goes one step further by actually designing the layout of their PDFs in landscape format. Why hassle the end-user when the content provider can give it to you in the most optimal format? Adams's and Dragon Magazine's solution isn't rocket science by any means yet it's effective. What impedes most people in my opinion is that they're stuck in the print paradigm. Most publications are laid out in the portrait so our electronic documents should similarly be laid out in portrait--even if that's not necessarily the most efficient way of doing things.

Of course in the case of Adams, changing the layout for the end-user is not an option, mainly because most likely, the works he is reading IS optimized for print. For example, electronic ARCs I receive are simply print galleys and aren't designed to be sold as electronic PDFs. On the other hand, we also have PDFs that are being sold in RPGNow, which have print counterparts. They're not laid out in landscape format simply because it's not feasible (or it's too draining on the publisher's resources) to redo the layout of the book just for an online audience so they simply re-use the print layout (adding bookmarks and links isn't as tedious as doing the work of an actual graphic designer although mind you, adding those extra features does take time).

I think for most of us, we're still operating under a print paradigm and so we don't really notice the lack of synchronization between the two, or why reading on a computer screen irks us so much. That's also part of the reason why it's difficult for us to innovate on the web--because our previous aesthetics and sensibilities interferes with how we perceive this "new" medium. (And I'm not one to talk--a friend recently called me to task on my blogger writing style because essays like these aren't really suited for my blog's layout as the text looks chunky and intimidating.)

Let's switch up things a bit: what is one thing that print excels at? For me, that would be our magazines and to a certain extent, comics. If it's just text and content, I think that can be reproduced on the web seamlessly as long as it's tweaked (no blocky layouts like this text you're reading). It's the combination of words and pictures and pull-quotes however that grab me as a print reader and doesn't really translate well on the computer screen. I mean how do you do a gatefold cover? Or a centerspread image? The moment you have to scroll to see the full image, you're doomed. Even an ordinary magazine cover is workable in an online medium except you miss out on the details. So good magazine layouts--one that incorporates both text and images (and when I speak of images, I'm not just talking about photos but the overall layout design which might include the "skin" of your page)--can never be perfectly translated on the web.

The same theory applies for comics but the biggest difference is comics on the Internet have adapted to the medium. The differences between online comics and print comics are noticeable such as the short, strip-nature of the former or the capability of using bleeds (artwork that fills the entire page) in the latter. Sure, there's room for overlap, such as PVP or Order of the Stick, which were also adapted for print but make no mistake, such comics were designed for online viewing first and print second.

What's an example of not-so-optimized layout? Just look at Newsarama. Now I'm a big fan of Newsarama and it's one of the websites I visit daily. However that doesn't mean I'm not aware of its layout problems. The front page is actually fine. It's when you click the articles that problems start to crop up. Just look at this interview with Garth Ennis and Joe Rybandt. Large central image on top--not a problem. Small, supplementary image on the side--not so good (especially considering I have to clink on a link to see the larger image).

How about an example of a site that maximizes the medium? Dr. Roundbottom is a website that impresses me. The layout is great and makes good use of the properties of the web. The images are large enough that one can see the details. The text is just the right length, not too intimidating but not too short either. Moreover, it's not trying to be print. Aside from the links, it also has audio recordings--something a print magazine could never accomplish, even if the said magazine came prepackaged with a CD. That's not to say it's perfect: I wish it had video for example. But Dr. Roundbottom I think is an example of the possibilities of publishing on the web* (Dr. Roundbottom is certainly an online model I'd pursue should I attempt something in the vein of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases or A Field Guide to Surreal Botany).

Here's also one thing I noticed: even us bloggers don't simply stick to "just text". We utilize links, photos, and -gasp- video! (Who hasn't embedded or posted a link to YouTube?) Some even have audio posts and the like.

When it comes to the format of our electronic or print texts, I do think we have to pay attention and check what best suits the medium.

* Having said that, designing for the web is hell, everything from not knowing the resolution screen of your end-user (or even their web browser) to the 215 safe colors.


Dom Cimafranca said...

If you do follow landscape format, make sure the text is two- or even three-column. It's easier for the eyes to follow shorter lines of text.

Dom Cimafranca said... could rotate your monitor....

Jeremy said...

Thanks, Charles! One of these days I will figure out a cost-effective way to add video to Dr. Roundbottom.