Digital books and the hobby

Depending on where you fix the starting point, the digital revolution has been around for several decades now, and despite that fact, we’re only just beginning to understand the implications of it all.

Desktop publishing tools have been around since the mid 1980s and have democratized publishing by removing the barriers to entry for almost everyone. Today, these same tools and many others are even more ubiquitous and easier to use than ever. All this aside however, digital publishing is still largely driven by the paper-based paradigm. Too many content creators (writers, artists, publishers) are still thinking in terms of paper books and their limitations.  The term “book” carries with it a five hundred year plus history of what a book is and does and doesn’t do. We all know how to interact with books and magazines but their digital cousins sometimes leave us wondering, confused and unsatisfied with the experience.

With digital technology, one of the great paradigm shifts lies in freeing the content (text, images, audio and video) from the container. Words are no longer confined to paper. Images have been freed from film and photo paper, and sound no longer requires vinyl records or silicon based CDs. The implications of this are huge.

With print, content tends to become static. Words and images on a page remain the same as long as that physical piece of paper exists. Thoughts and ideas essentially become fixed at a point in time. However, when these thoughts and ideas are digitized, they become dynamic. They can reshape to fit the display device. Content becomes fluid, portable and abundant. A single file can be downloaded as many times as required, able to be shared at will, and taken wherever the device itself can go. A digital book becomes less of a container and more of a portal to an infinite body of knowledge via links to other content. Understanding this shift is key to creating information forms that enhances learning and reader engagement in ways unimagined before.

In addition to being a portal, digital content is customizable in infinite ways. It’s simple to update it at will, perhaps even continuously. Via those same links, I can drill down on a subject in whatever manner I choose. The best digital content lets me pick and choose how I engage with it. I can follow a link or not. Watch a video clip or not. Sadly, too many publishers haven’t grasped this, and still produce products that are little more than digitized static paper books. For those who do understand, the possibilities for presenting information are only limited by the imagination.

Good design plays a role here. Digital content needs to be designed for use via a screen from the beginning. Issues such as readability become critical, especially on small format screens like smart phones.  Small text fonts, crowded page layouts, and poor or non-existent navigation through the document, all distract from the experience, and hence its real value to the reader.  Consider the typical model railroad construction article. I’ve read that this type of content hasn’t been selling well in digital form. If this is true, then there’s a reason and I suspect that poor design may be a big part of it.

The typical article will be a text based description and overview of the project and procedures with step-by-step photos showing the various stages of construction, and depending on the focus and complexity, a series of plans or drawings that show some aspects in greater detail.

Documents designed with the user in mind will consider how such info will be ultimately used. For a digital version of our construction article, the usual thought would be to add video clips that clearly show different procedures in ways still photos couldn’t. Maybe there’ll be audio files of the builder giving some insights about the project. That’s getting the cart before the horse though. Good digital design asks what information does the modeler need at the bench and in what form. Something as basic as where does the iPad, smart phone or laptop go to be out of harms way at the bench?  Most of us haven’t even thought of that unless we’ve tried it in practice. An equally valid question: Does the device need to be at the bench at all? In the case of video clips, the answer is self-evident. But text based instructions might be better served by a simple printer friendly sheet of paper. What purpose is the content serving here? Is the modeler learning a new technique, trying to duplicate a result or simply following a plan? Each of these objectives might suggest a different form of content and delivery. Thinking from this perspective may lead to ideas not normally considered, and a conscientious designer/publisher will sweat the answers.

Layering digital bells and whistles onto what are basically digitized print documents is taking the shortsighted view. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. There is an opportunity to use digital technology in fundamentally new ways that can reinvent the information products and ideas that underlie the hobby and the ways we engage with them. Will we?

Mike Cougill

Creative Director,

OST Publications Inc.