Why Digital First Designers are the Future of Digital Publishing

Ernest Journal for iPad

Today’s millennials are more digitally-oriented than ever. However, that doesn’t just apply to those consuming our content, but those creating it, as well. The generational tide also brings forth content creators that have grown into a world of design that’s not static and CMYK, but dynamic and RGB. Whereas the traditional content creator can assume that their readers can navigate a print product, today’s digital designer must keep the user experience at the forefront of their mind if they are to produce something worth downloading.

As technology advances further to provide us with even more incredible opportunities, it also presents an equal number of pitfalls. This is no more relevant than in iPad digital publishing. The device’s multi-touch display has the potential to allow readers to interact and engage with a publisher’s content like never before, but can equally offer a terrible user experience if executed poorly. Frustration with technology tends to be more pervasive than the feeling you get when you lock yourself out of the house. It renders you totally helpless, making you yearn for the reliable touch of a physical object free from load times and intimidating interfaces. A bad user experience has the power not only to put the user off that particular digital magazine, but digital magazines as a whole.

What do Publishing Students think of Digital Magazines

Earlier this year The Washington Post reported that digital natives are still preferring print materials when studying or relaxing. I found a similar response when speaking with fellow students in my Publishing course at Oxford Brookes. Just over half of the 24 students I talked to said they had previously tried a digital magazine — and of those, the majority reported to have had a negative experience. Overall, students commented on a lack of perceived value in a digital product compared to the print one, and attributed a bad user experience to an unintuitive user-interface and long load times. Of course, this is a minuscule sample size, but I thought it was interesting to see how a group of young, technology-minded publishing students react to the digital iPad magazine.

My own takeaway from this tiny study is that publishers need to prove to their audience that digital products aren’t a compromise, but an alternative way to consume quality, curated content. One of the best magazines I have seen achieve this is Ernest journal, a bi-monthly newsstand publication created using the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. I find it strikes a perfect balance between user-experience and digital functionality. It’s strange to see such a vintage and traditional brand work so well on a digital medium, but it does so with the aid of some beautiful photography paired with great writing.

But what about User-Curated Content?

There is undoubtedly a current trend towards user-curated content, with Flipboard quietly rasiing $50 million in new funding and Apple set to release their News app in the next generation of iOS. Both apps allow users to control the editorial delivered to their smart devices from a variety of sources. So does that mean the end of branded magazines? My view is that this leaves even more room for publishers to promote their own apps as a curated brand experience that offer something unique compared to a simple newsfeed.

How can publishers create immersive content readers really want to read?

To achieve this, publishers can’t fall back on the PDF replica. It epitomizes the idea of digital being a compromise. Why would readers put up with a zooming PDF when they can either get the print version, or more likely go to their more convenient web equivalent? Instead, the type of apps that are going to be more effective in the folio format are long-form, immersive pieces of quality journalism that combine simple navigation with vibrant visuals that tell an effective story. The New York Times experimented with this format back in 2012 with Snow Fall, a beautiful web-based interactive piece on the Tunnel Creek avalanche that swept with it 16 experienced free-skiers. Whilst the experience is still enjoyable on a tablet, some features were omitted for the mobile platform, which is a shame.

Either way, we have to throw out everything we may already know about print design, and rethink the way we tell stories in the digital form. I believe this is a great opportunity for digital-first designers, who are approaching design tools not with a static production in mind, but an interactive one. It’s not until we totally free our creative minds from the limiting — and perhaps all-too comforting — rectangle that is the piece of paper that we’ll see true innovation in this space.