Sitting in Pictures of Chairs: Digital Reading and Adobe

After a trial issue last month, Frieze magazine will now be available on iPad through Apple’s Newsstand. I’m very excited. Frieze has long been one of my favorite art magazines, it’s smart and engaging without pretense or preachiness. They also tend to have great literature and art publishing coverage, including their terrific Ideal Syllabus series. However, since I moved a few years ago to Tucson, Arizona (thousands of miles and worlds away from the magazine’s London offices) Frieze has been difficult to get in a timely manner. The magazine does offer full article access on the web with the purchase of a print subscription, but frankly, I have enough to read online already, and really craved Frieze‘s magazine-ness. So, yay, digital edition for my iPad!

The digital release of Frieze also coincides with a moment in art publishing where I think we’re finally seeing enough visual art e-books and e-book apps that we can begin to analyze them more broadly rather than simply as isolated case studies. We can start to see trends and directions, common high and low points, and common tools. The Frieze digital edition was created with Adobe’s popular Digital Publishing Suite (Adobe DPS). Adobe DPS is a fairly straightforward way of working with InDesign publication files (for example, those you used to create your print publication) to create a tablet-ready app or digital publication. Though you may not have been aware of it, you’ve almost surely come across a number of Adobe DPS apps already, including the Met’s early Korean Buncheong Ceramics, Dallas Art Museum’s new George Grosz in Dallas, and now Frieze.

Adobe DPS is proving a popular, early option for visual art publishers. So, I believe it’s worth taking some extra time to look at here. However, rather than an account of the publishing experience with Adobe DPS, I’d like instead to offer thoughts on the reading experience. This is how I came to Frieze anyway, as a reader, and I think it’s a valuable perspective. In fact, I’d propose that the reader and their experience should always be our primary focus as publishers. That may sound obvious, but I think maybe we forget it too often. In terms of our discussion here on digital publishing in art museums, when considering our many digital publishing options—the tools, the formats, the devices—we need to first ask, What is the final product like to read? Only when and if we find a positive answer to that question (meaning, a positive reading experience), should we ask, What is it like to publish?

  

So, what is it like to read the Frieze digital edition, and by extension other similar Adobe DPS-created apps? Not too shabby.

  • Lovely navigation. Includes a horizontal, visual table of contents (pictured above right) that allows the reader to quickly and easily see the scope of the publication, lengths of individual articles or chapters, where and what the illustrations are, etcetera. A digital thumbing of the pages.
  • Beautifully structured pages. Each article or chapter is read scrolling vertically and with the extensive layout controls available, allows for some lovely, poetic design moments.
  • Ads! Yes, I’m listing ads as a positive. Why? Because ads have become a primary content tool for tracking what’s going on in contemporary art; because their presence lends to the digital edition’s aforementioned “magazine-ness”; and because, clever Frieze, some of them take advantage of the digital space and are animated or include extra frames of images.
  • Clean multimedia add-ins for video, audio, slideshows, and animations.
  • An app format that feels reassuringly familiar as more and more publishers use it for their various publications.

Some significant high points, and these, taken into account with what I believe is a fairly easy workflow for publishers looking to get into app/digital publishing, makes Adobe DPS an attractive option. There are a couple of things that I think need to be done to improve the reading experience:

IDEA 1:
Optimize your files for the smallest possible download size, and test and re-test the download experience.

This issue of Frieze was nearly 600MB and took me more than an hour to load wirelessly on a network that was otherwise speedy. Also, within the Newsstand app, where Frieze resides, I was unable to leave the app as the issue downloaded, or to let the iPad go to sleep without it resetting the download to 0 and starting from the beginning. In the end, I had to turn off the sleep/autolock feature on the iPad and then sit it there for an hour, unmoving, while the thing loaded. If this isn’t something that can be avoided in the creation of the app within Adobe DPS, then it needs to be addressed for the reader before they buy. Set expectations so they can be met.

On a side note, since first downloading the issue, I’ve gotten a notification that there’s an update ready to install, but I’ve been afraid to try it. Especially as it doesn’t give me an indication of what the update covers, or how long it will take me to download.

IDEA 2:
Unlock your content!

As a publisher, I understand the desire for a beautifully designed page. I understand (though don’t prescribe to) wanting to protect content from those who might misuse it and hurt my bottom line. And I understand that these desires lead to things like Adobe DPS apps that give the publisher complete design control, and copyright protection. As I reader, I don’t understand at all.

As I mentioned before, I love Frieze. And in this issue, as always, there were several articles I would have loved to take notes on, highlight key quotes from, and tell people about over my Twitter feed, but I couldn’t, the app wouldn’t allow it. In the Frieze digital edition, as well in the other Adobe DPS apps I mentioned above, there is no way for you to interact with the text as a reader. You can’t highlight it. Can’t annotate it. Can’t share a snippet of it, or even copy a section for your own notes. I’ve written before in defense of what I call ”agile reading”, and I’m afraid this is anything but. In these Adobe DPS created apps, no matter how much you poke or prod, the text remains mute and unmoved. It reminds me of Joseph Kosuth’s seminal conceptual work, One and Three Chairs, because doing anything beyond simply reading the text in these apps is like trying to sit in a picture of a chair.

One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth, 1965. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Joseph Kosuth. This iconic piece consists of a chair, a picture of the chair, and the word “chair” and its definition.

And here, it occurs to me that unlocking content is not simply about giving people access to the text, it is also about embracing the physical experience of reading. Think about those many museum exhibitions you’ve seen that include books in glass vitrines. As book and museum lovers you must get as frustrated by these things as I do. Encased in glass, static, and mute, these poor things have lost everything that makes them books. Books, we know, must be read. Books must be paged through. Books must be handled. Indeed they are made for hands, and the resulting interaction of hand, eye, and book, are, I believe, an intrinsic part of the book’s cultural and pedagogical power. What we might not have considered until now is that reading a digital book is a physical experience too. Swiping pages, pinching in and out on images, pressing links, double tapping and running your finger over a sentence, word-by-word to highlight it. These are the meaningful, physical gestures of e-reading, and if you start to remove them, you’re removing the book’s utility, and in turn I would argue, its chances for intellectual relevance and longevity.

Think of the most enduring, culturally and intellectually important books that have ever been published, and think about how people interact with them. It starts with the individual reader marking passages and making notes, then they share these things with those around them, they discuss and argue over them, quote and cite them, and eventually write more about them. Readers’ interactions with those books are what have made them great. I applaud Frieze for taking this digital step, just as I applaud the Met and Dallas and everyone else working hard to bring beautiful and meaningful art publishing to the digital space. But let us be cautious about that step when it inhibits our readers’ ability to interact with our texts.

7 thoughts on “Sitting in Pictures of Chairs: Digital Reading and Adobe”

  1. Dear Greg, thank you for the feedback on our new frieze app. It is great to read such a detailed and thoughtful response to what has been a very exciting and challenging project for us. I was particularly interested in your comments about unlocking content. We really wanted to make the most of the digital format of the app to extend the content beyond the limitations of the printed page with films, slide shows, etc but making the text more interactive would certainly be an interesting area to explore going forward and would compliment our social media activity and existing web blogs.
    Anna Starling, frieze

  2. Anna, thanks so much for commenting. I hope you’ll continue to follow us here and might perhaps consider posting an update on the progress of frieze’s digital edition as you continue to develop it. The edition does a great job with the extended content, and I’m glad to hear that you’ll continue work on the text issues moving forward. As I mentioned on Twitter, if Adobe DPS won’t allow the text to be more accessible, perhaps linking the app articles directly to their web versions would at least be a stop gap measure, and allow for some easier sharing (with the ability to copy a quote, and offer a permalink)?

    Finally, I also want to point our readers to frieze’s recent e-book on documenta (http://bit.ly/Nr7u5j), which I thought was a terrific digital initiative—publishing packaged material on a very timely topic, that would not otherwise have been possible with print. Nice!

  3. I try to think about Adobe DPS from a couple different angles. In my opinion, its implementation is a direct evolution of printing. DPS integrates with currently familiar design-layout applications allowing a publishing process to evolve into digital without a great amount of disruptive change. There’s something to be said for this—we want rich beautiful content on our iPads now!

    On the other hand, there are the digital publishing platforms that are a little less comfortable, take more re-thinking, effort and disruption. At the Museum Publishing Seminar, there was much talk about the culture clash between publishing professionals and digital media technologists. As one coming from the digital end, I tend to prefer disruption, open-source, cross-platform, etc.

    I see where we’re all coming from–and both are valid directions. I hope that we can learn from each other. Adobe DPS could evolve by opening its platform and building on standards. Open source ePub friendly custom solutions can keep pushing the envelope to influence commercial products like Adobe DPS. These custom solutions need to ensure that the authoring and integration features make it as easy to experiment with as Adobe DPS or iBooks.

    I’m entirely biased, but I encourage people to check out the open-source Drupal-based ePub-friendly ‘OSCI Toolkit’ http://www.oscitoolkit.org/ as a potential feature-rich authoring environment.

  4. Book design and production guru, TIna Henderson (http://tinahenderson.com / @tinahender) did a bit of research on Adobe DPS and found this Adobe blog posting highlighting some relevant features: http://adobe.ly/M79tzM. The features include font embedding which “enables selectable live text in magazines, and drives down file sizes through the use of PDF and HTML”. It does not, however, seem to allow highlighting or annotating of the text. There are also some sharing possibilities that might be relevant to our discussion here, though they come with A LOT of rules and caveats about who sees what and when and on what device.

    On a side note, Tina is an active member of an e-book production community on twitter at the hashtag #eprdctn. It’s a lively and extremely useful resource I highly recommend following and using.

  5. Thanks Liz! You bring up a very important point that Adobe DPS is a direct evolution from the print world, and its resulting ease of use and familiarity to print publishers has undoubtedly made it an attractive, easy option for them to choose. Along those lines, but on the opposite side of the print-publishing/digital-media coin, the phrase “open-source Drupal-based ePub-friendly ‘OSCI Toolkit’” is one that I think would send most print publishers running! However, if they look at the various pages in the Documentation section of the OSCI Toolkit site (specifically http://www.oscitoolkit.org/content/documentation-authoring-tools) I think they’ll find a very friendly looking system. The question I have for you though is, how does someone (ie., an intrepid print publisher) wanting to try the OSCI Toolkit get from the GitHub posted files to the user-friendly screens pictured in the documentation?

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