Making Books for Gadgets

02/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Hugh McGuire Founder of,, and

The Importance of Good Book Design

I've had a few discussions recently with bookmakers, designers, and typesetters about the "importance of good book design." There is a particular philosophical position that goes something like this: good book design is to some degree hidden. When you pick up a book and flip through it, well-weighted fonts, pleasing margins, nice paper stock, balanced spacing, etc etc. all contribute to a positive interaction with a book. On the other hand, something sloppily designed will come across as sloppy, and you'll have a negative experience, even if it's unconscious.

I agree with all of the above, that there is something immensely pleasing about a well-designed book; something off-putting about a badly-designed book.

What about eBooks?

The strange thing though is that this conversation tends to veer off when discussing eBooks. I get the sense from some designers (and some readers), that since eBooks can't be controlled in the same way as print and paper books, somehow they are inferior -- and that people just won't be attached to them, drawn into them in the same way as they are with "real" books.

To which my reaction is: eBooks, and digital devices, are a different medium, they call for a whole new design approach. The constraints are different, the readers' needs different, and so the way you'll design a text is going to be different. I was shocked that with the iPod and the Stanza reader, the small screen actually seems to me an advantage over the paper book, in certain circumstances anyway (on the bus, in line at the bank). Amazon's Kindle & Sony Reader have tried to reinvent the book in electronic form, using the same kinds of design principles. They've made "a book that is electronic." The ereaders on the iPhone/iPod (Stanza et al) have instead tried to build a new kind of design/interaction standard into existing constraints of devices people already have. They've designed a new kind of reading experience using the advantages of electronic text and mobile devices.

I find the second approach more compelling because it's adding new value where before there was none. That is: I no longer have to carry a book around, because I have 75 of them sitting on my iPod - which I'm carrying anyway. The Kindle & Sony Reader both say: please carry me around the way you used to carry your book. There's nothing wrong with that, but in some sense it's a conservative approach to eBooks.

Design and Constraint

There's an old story about how true freedom and true art come only from constraints, not lack of constraint. And so designing books for digital means that we need to not just accept but to embrace these constraints, and build a new design aesthetic out of them. It took a decade before we started getting it right with web sites; eBooks need similar attention.

Scroll: Essays on the Design of Electronic Text

Al that to say: I'm very happy to see: Scroll: Essays on the Design of Electronic Text by the Grad students at the iSchool, University of Toronto:

The class of FIS 2309, Design of Electronic Text, at Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto was challenged to create an open-access electronic journal to publish their major papers for the course. The goal of the project was to provide the students with the opportunity to gain knowledge of electronic text: its design principles, uses and methods for evaluating usability. Content comes from the students themselves, as they submit original papers on topics revolving around the issues and challenges of creating electronic text. [more...]

I've not yet delved into the papers in the journal, but I am looking forward to it.