Workflow-go-go: Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Verso magazine

This article was co-written by Kris Thayer and Diane Richard of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

No blue lines. No red pens. In this digital landscape, your best tool is a willingness to embrace colorful chaos.

When we first launched Verso (iPad link, web viewer link) the digital magazine of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, our workflow road map was about as useful as your iPhone’s: we spent hours circling cul-de-sacs, looking for road signs and pancaked on ruts.

a typical print workflow

a typical print workflow

With five issues now on Verso’s iPad library, the numerous ways in which our digital workflow differs from a traditional print workflow are becoming clear. We hope what follows will help you navigate your own efforts at digital-first publishing.

the workflow for Verso

the workflow for Verso

Here, we focus on three distinctions: dimensional storytelling, cross-departmental content gathering and the iterative process.

Bells and whistles are the content

The first, a quality we call “dimensional storytelling,” reflects the strength of this dynamic medium to cross sensory boundaries. With Verso, each issue is native digital, conceived and built from the ground up to exploit interactivity for an audience—untethered by geographic boundaries—that desires a more immersive experience with art. We’re not taking a print publication and “making it interactive,” turning it into a PDF and adding clips and links. It is interactive by design.

That means a story lacking audio or video content, hi-res images for pinch-and-zoomability, animated elements or layered images (great for before and afters) doesn’t often win a place on Verso’s digital “pages.” Because, basically, it doesn’t offer more than print.

Upshot: Build in time for experimentation and the production of multimedia assets. Ask yourself, what content would grab and hold the user?

Everyone has a story

In the museum’s former magazine for members, Arts, most content descended from the heavens—that is, came from curators. It was then edited and handed to a print designer, who placed it on the page and made it fit. That’s a workflow you already know.

cover for latest issue of Verso

cover for latest issue of Verso

With Verso, content ideas bubble up from multiple sources. Visual Resources, the museum’s repository of digital assets, is a key collaborator; its tech-savvy staff alerts us to diagnostic tools—like Reflectance Transformation Imaging and forensic UV/X-rays—being used to examine artworks, which we then demo in Verso. The department also tips us off to fresh photographs of newly accessioned objects and responds to requests for special treatments, such as 360-degree imaging of works.

Other content partners aren’t as obvious: departments of Registration, Learning & Innovation (education), and Visitor & Member Services all have spots at the story-generation table. Their eyes and ears provide loads of good recon.

You never know where a good idea will originate. In one example, a serendipitous conversation with a woodshop worker yielded a surprising behind-the-scenes feature on the museum’s fine-art packer. His trove of exhaustive documentation gave us superb visuals with which to illustrate his work.

This article focuses on an MIA staffer, Shawn McCann, an acclaimed sidewalk artist. This type of story gives users a behind-the-scenes look at the museum; such stories were rarely if ever possible with the economics of print.

This article focuses on an MIA staffer, Shawn McCann, an acclaimed sidewalk artist. This type of story gives users a behind-the-scenes look at the museum; such stories were rarely if ever possible with the economics of print.

Of course, curators and curatorial continue to supply Verso with ideas and expertise. The important point here, though, is that content draws from a broader well than before. The result? Verso has catalyzed a new spirit of cross-departmental collaboration to yield unexpected stories. It’s got people talking to one another, with new faces at the table.

Talk to people outside your immediate work circles, and seek out people willing to collaborate, experiment and play.


A third difference is an emphasis on iteration. Because of the primacy of visuals in Verso, content originates most often from images. That means copy often comes second, and that a traditional narrative might get exploded to support or supplement an article’s visual content.

Sotto voce:

Diane:  As a writer/editor trained in print and audio storytelling, I hold my breath while my copy is Ginsu-ed to respond to the visuals. Sometimes I must press to maintain a logical copy flow; most times, though, I agree that Kris’s multimedia techniques better serve the Show/Don’t Tell medium.

Kris: As a designer trained in print, I’m frustrated when I receive monolithic blocks of text; it’s simply the wrong approach for digital. Diane now tries to write in chunks, which I pull apart to relate to the visual techniques and flow; some copy gets jettisoned in the process. Don’t tell her.

an article in the current issue of Verso

an article in the current issue of Verso

Throughout this exchange, we get in our 10,000 daily steps tussling over copy and images in service of story while we challenge each other to deliver a more engaging experience. So, if you look at the workflow illustration, what looks like dizzying rounds of corrections is in fact a fertile phase of content development. Corrections and proofing come later and—guess what?—they, too, require a special workflow.

Choose work partners with a robust sense of humor, a willingness to change course midstride and a we-not-me ego. It’ll make the ride a lot more scenic.

As we assemble our sixth issue [now available for iPad and web viewer] we acknowledge the experimental nature of the beast and its ability to excite and exhaust its makers. Nevertheless, our aim is to make that behind-the-scenes drama invisible for Verso readers; we want them to enjoy a seamless, spontaneous experience.

Do we have the optimal digital workflow? Not likely. Does it work for us? Mostly. Is someone doing it better, on similarly limited means? Quite possibly. Do we welcome conversation about it? Absolutely.

—Kris Thayer is an audience engagement strategist and senior designer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts;

—Diane Richard is an audience engagement strategist and writer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts;

Read a story from Mpls/St Paul magazine about Verso here.

But Can the Unicorn Publish? Digital Humanities and Museum Publishing

One of the nice things about being a digital pack rat is that you never know what you’re going to find in the “stuff to read later” in your Dropbox. As one of my Arbitrary Calendar Change Day’s resolutions was “read stuff from ‘stuff to read later’ folder,” the first item I clicked on was an open access PDF called “Digital Humanities,” a white paper by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. After attending the Museum Computer Network conference for the first time, this seemed as a good as time as any to address this topic.

And Digital Humanities has a unicorn, who has his own twitter feed! ‘Nuff said.

Digital Humanities is one of those things that people who aren’t already in the field stumble into and are surprised to find a huge discussion about it already underway. DH is a multi-disciplinary approach to using technology to improve humanities research, but it’s more than just a description: as technology opens up more avenues of research, the possibilities of said research grow exponentially. Any good perusal of a DH website will find articles on both the results of the research and the techniques used in generating that research. Many times, the same article will have explorations of the findings and the techniques, which opens up multiple avenues of engaging the reader, colleagues, the field. Like all good applied uses of technology, it comes with its own feedback loop.

What DH isn’t is brand new. I took a class in statistical methods of political science twenty-five a bunch of years ago using a VAX mini-computer and some hare-brained ideas about explaining national development in Africa based on … who knows. (It was sophomore year. I was listening to the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack until I wore out the cassette tape. ‘Nuff said.) There have always been technologists in the humanities, but now there’s a widespread effort to build new tools and share them (like Omeka and Arduino, just to name two, and the list of open-source DH tools is endless), yet another feedback loop that is making the field a very promising not-for-profit analogue of the app-driven Silicon (V)Alley.

As a museum publisher, DH brings two questions to mind. First, how will museum publishing departments react to the ability of their more DH-minded curators to publish in their field in ways beyond the monograph? Should publishers be getting in on the act and helping their curators reach a broader audience with digital tools (and perhaps vice versa)?

Second, does DH change the potential publishing workflow? Now that there are so many open-source tools which mimic, at small scales, a content management system, will the task of getting content out of museum-wide CMS’s into an editable and then publishable format become easier? Are museum publishers, like some of their traditional publishing colleagues (Wiley and its XML-first workflow comes to mind), be ready to handle non-traditional publishing patterns?

The Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) has the express aim of creating new publishing possibilities for museums. The resulting prototypes from a host of institutions are only the beginning, and whether they represent interesting hybrids or the last best attempt to make dense exhibition and collection catalogues work in a digital setting remains to be seen.

To me, the biggest hurdles in a relationship between DH and museum publishing are the same ones that have made working in both print and digital such a challenge: the drastic difference in time frames and the willingness to publish in iterative steps. How do you coordinate the one-to-two-year lifecycle of a significant exhibition catalogue and the fast-as-you-can-type publishing of a blog page? The iteration-and-prototyping issue may be even more of a problem. Print publishers aren’t keen to beta-test a book, and making available in some digital format the content of a book before printing opens up all sorts of thorny intellectual property problems.

But, as I’ve often said about willpower and money in a museum setting, there’s never enough of either. Until there is.

I can see real potential here for curators to become more active participants in the publishing process, with the help of digital departments in the institution. DH opens up possibilities for curators to “design” the expression of their research in ways that have a publishing aspect. Can publications designers help with this expression? Can a publication department create templates to allow for quicker expression of research? These are the interesting conversations that I hope the rise of DH will create.

And if publishers are concerned about being asked to learn new skills, consider this passage from the Digital Humanities report:

“The field of Digital Humanities may see the emergence of polymaths who can ‘do it all’: who can research, write, shoot, edit, code, model, design, network, and dialogue with users. But there is also ample room for specialization and, particularly, for collaboration. The generation now cursed with the label ‘digital natives’ will surely develop the capacity to become comprehensive digital humanists. The fact that digital projects of any substantial scale benefit from and, indeed, often require team-based approaches troubles traditional concepts of authorship in the humanities, which are still fixated, by and large, on single-authored achievements.” (15)

The authors of this paper are less concerned with specific technologies than with the overall approach inspired by digital possibilities. They know that research skill and digital wizardry are not the same thing for researchers. Neither should they be for publishers.

I won’t go into their entire analysis here. They build a useful progression from a first layer of computation, followed by processing, and the importance of analogue activities like classification and description (metadata may be digital but figuring out what tags are important is very much analog, as the debate about the creation of indexes in ebooks has revealed). Higher-level activities like curation, analysis, editing, and modeling can be expressed digitally but still require a great deal of people skill and thoughtful aesthetics.

To me, the essences of DH are prototyping, versioning, and failure. It’s the rapidity that scares both the traditional humanities and print publishing, and that’s the most important behavior we need to inculcate. The challenge will be working this into our curricula AND social-science workplaces, our curatorial departments AND our publication departments. Perhaps we’ll be better served if we think of it as Digital humanities or digital Humanities, but not see both as being equally capitalized.

The first part of the PDF is well worth a read for those who don’t know what DH is. I’ll address the report’s second part, “Emerging Messages and Genres,” in a future post.

Here are a few resources on DH:

(Thanks to Joan Fragaszy Troyano of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University for her insights into DH.)

250 more free art books released into the world

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of the Getty Publications Virtual Library, an online repository of more than 250 titles from our archive that are now free to read online and to download. This library joins those of the Met, the Guggenheim, LACMA and others who have already made decades of scholarship available to the public at a scale and with an openness previously unimagined. And while from a digital publications standpoint these are simply facsimile scans in PDF form, they are a first step—for many of us I think—in making more of our books more widely available, and in ever more dynamic and meaningful ways.


This project started long before I came on board as the Getty’s digital publications manager, and I played only a modest role in its final stages, but it is exactly this kind of thinking and these kinds of amazing books that attracted me to the job in the first place. Here at the Getty and at other art institutions, we have the opportunity to push digital publishing in the arts forward, and to explore how it might best serve us—not only as publishers, but as readers too. Enjoy!

To Flow or Not to Flow: Why Is That the Question?

More than a year ago I wrote about options for creating digital art books. A key consideration when choosing a format is whether to let go of control over the layout and create a reflowable ebook, or to retain control with a fixed-layout, non-reflowable ebook. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. But with Apple’s free iBooks Author app, you can create Multi-Touch iBooks that contain both reflowable text and a fixed layout. I’ll explain below.

First, in case it wasn’t clear in my previous post, I am an epub enthusiast, as well as an epub developer. An open standard compatible with the majority of ereaders, epub is the most widely accepted and distributed format for digital books. Beautiful epubs have been, and continue to be, produced by people who care enough to spend time making them so. As much as I’d love to produce museum publications as reflowable epubs, I’ve yet to get beyond the samples stage, usually because there’s not enough control over layout. Fixed-layout epubs can provide that control, but the format is best suited for photo books or children’s books and just doesn’t work well with text-heavy books. Letting go of some control over layout is essential if you want to produce widely read ebooks.

But this post is not about open-standard epub; it’s about dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBooks (a mouthful, I know). The one major drawback of these ebooks is that they can currently only be viewed on iPads or Macs running the latest operating system. However, these dual-orientation ebooks are unique in that they provide the best of both ebook worlds: reflowable text (portrait orientation) and fixed layout (landscape orientation), allowing the reader to easily switch between the two as desired.

Recently, some beautiful Multi-Touch iBooks have been produced in landscape orientation, including Graphite (Indianapolis Museum of Art) and 90° (Andrew Kim). These ebooks push the boundaries of the format, using the available tools in unique ways. However, as much as I appreciate the creativity behind these innovative ebooks, it is still iBooks Author’s dual-orientation option that most intrigues me and leads me to believe that this format is a great option for digital art books.

I’ve produced a few of these myself, but let’s examine Getty Publications’ Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia (edited by Ruth Evans Lane and designed by Jim Drobka). When Looking East was released, I was excited to see the combination of gorgeous imagery, expert typography, and well-thought-out interactivity.

The design of the ebook follows that of the print version. Here’s a lovely chapter opener in both landscape and portrait orientations.



Most figures are shown both in their entirety (zoomable to full screen) and as an Interactive Image (see “Open to Explore”).


The Interactive Image contains the entire figure at a much larger size, allowing the viewer to scroll around and explore the image in close detail.


Here is the same content in portrait orientation, which iBooks Author automatically creates while the designer constructs the ebook in landscape orientation. Figures are moved into the margin and the text becomes scrollable; page numbers from the landscape layout are shown at the bottom right.


The landscape orientation remains fixed, while, in portrait orientation, the reader can adjust the text size, allowing the text to reflow.


Looking East is a lovely example of the dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBook. The interactivity makes sense for the content and the layout is clean and open. My one criticism is that they could have improved this ebook by linking the footnotes to their respective in-text references, although I know from experience that linking in iBooks Author is an arduous task.

A small book like Looking East (128 paperback pages) is an ideal size for a Multi-Touch iBook. Trying to recreate a 400-page exhibition catalogue as a Multi-Touch iBook is quite an endeavor and could result in a file too large for the iBookstore. One idea is to use just a few sections of the print catalogue, as we did with African Cosmos, but perhaps a better idea is to rethink the content, reducing the overall size but adding interactive elements that make sense. For example, in an upcoming Multi-Touch iBook for MFA Boston (Jim Dine Printmaker: Leaving My Tracks, shown below), we replaced transcripts of artist interviews from the print book with videos of the interviews. Other books might benefit from interactive maps, links to online content, or 360-degree object views.


For other important considerations before publishing with iBooks Author (or Adobe’s DPS), see Greg Albers’ post here. (And, if you are considering a DPS book app, see the tips I’ve collected here for getting your app approved by Apple.)

Beautiful, logical layouts created by the designer in addition to reflowable text for easier, more immersive reading fuses the best aspects of both ebook worlds. So, with the caveat that they can only be viewed on the iPad or a Mac running the latest operating system, the dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBook is the format I recommend for text-heavy digital art books.

Museum Computer Network, or Museum Content Network?

I made the joke many times in the lead-up to my presentation at the Museum Computer Network annual conference in Montreal that, coming from a print background, I was a caveman (complete with image from classic Phil Hartman Saturday Night Live sketch). I expected to be living Future Shock for three days, aswim in acronyms.

I was wrong—not because I was unfamiliar with the terminology, which I was to a degree, but because the museum computing community is warm, welcoming, and, most of all, open. Open access, open minded, open to experimentation, open to audiences. (“When you’re experimenting, there are always people who want to help you,” as one speaker said.) And best of all for my part of the world, open to print …

But there I go again, getting my print-digital dichotomy on. The techie vs old-school antagonism is overblown. Even calling the group the Museum Computer Network is anachronistic. To borrow the corporate buzzy term of the moment, this is a conference about museum Content, in all its forms, and if that doesn’t include print, it’s because print isn’t asking (demanding?) to be included. Considering that the preparation of a printed catalogue is now 99 percent digital, that’s at best silly, at worst inefficient and wasteful of finite museum resources.

The issue here isn’t the container—platforms come and go, and if you think you know what visitor experience will look like in five years you’re lying or else in possession of dangerous time-travel technology—but the connections that museums undertake, and I mean internally. My own brainstorming about content flow showed that there are tons of ways that museum departments currently reach the outside world, and a lot fewer ways that they reach each other. That’s the real openness challenge.

Technology itself is a descriptive term, a symptom of civilization, not its driving force. Hence Douglas Hegley’s talk, “WTF: Technology,” during the first evening’s slate of ignite talks. He noted that the only changes worth making are those that impact people, not devices. Know your audiences, not technology, as per the panel “Beyond the Visitor Survey: Using Research to Drive Design Decisions.” We need to align our personal values with our work values (with our institutional mission, my addition), as per the MCN keynote from Tina Roth Eisenberg of Brooklyn-based creative endeavors Tattly and others. We need to always be experimenting, prototyping, iterating, and collaborating, as Beyond the Printed Page‘s own Liz Neely of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Micah Walter of the Cooper-Hewitt, so ably demonstrated in their talk on rapid prototyping in the museum.

Museums have done an admirable job inculcating forward-thinking departments within their walls, but maybe not as effectively connecting them to other departments in order to create a culture of experimentation. Or, as Charlotte Sexton, recently of the National Gallery, London, said, “there’s a difference between being ‘risk aware’ and ‘risk averse’.”

It’s the internal risks that we have to take, the internal pitches we have to have ready, as Micah Walter said. Those are the risks that require that we step outside of our job descriptions, that we make extra work for ourselves beyond the deadlines we already have. Those are the demands we need to start making: for our HR departments to hire the right kind of people, for the content-oriented conferences to make space for non-profits, for the museum-oriented conferences to make room for content specialists and publishers. Sometimes we have to be a little bit rogue within our own buildings, as Kris Thayer, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, said during her presentation with Douglas Hegley, on using Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite for a new line of digital publications. (How’s that for a report to your boss? “What was your takeaway from the conference that we paid to send you to?” “That we have to GO ROGUE!”)

It’s overkill to call any conference transformative, but I know that my own sense of my place—and print’s place—within in the current museum content landscape changed over the course of MCN. I only had to listen to myself at the “Speed-date Networking” event the second morning of the conference. At the first couple of tables I was telling other attendees that I had come to bring print departments closer to their digital colleagues; by the third table, I was going to bring both print and digital closer together; by the sixth or seventh pitch, I was going to bring all museum departments together into a larger content universe. That’s the prize we in museums should be aiming for. The old antagonisms of print vs digital have given way to the new relationship between curatorial and “interpretorial,” to use a great term I heard from Cleveland Museum of Art’s Jennifer Foley during “Working Across Boundaries,” which featured a curator discussing in real time the positives and negatives of the Gallery One project from a curatorial point of view.

We need to push together to compete for our potential visitors’ attention spans against the Xboxes of the world. We have to evaluate our internal processes, asking questions with real answers and real action plans, as Kate Tinworth of Expose Your Museum said during her presentation on improving internal evaluations.

I write all this in the full knowledge than many institutions have done all of the above. The Met has done some of it, and can do better. But we as a community have to have these priorities or we’re not going to gain the synergies our corporate counterparts have gained (at no small cost in jobs and tension, I add, but that’s the nonprofit-sector horse we all rode in on).

I said about 18 months ago when I first started blogging on this Bliki that I wanted to get past dichotomies. Not to get all Buddhist/Matrix-y, but there is no dichotomy. It’s all the same museum content world, and we continue to think of ourselves in opposition to other interpreters to our peril.