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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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; firstname.lastname@example.org
—Diane Richard is an audience engagement strategist and writer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; email@example.com
Read a story from Mpls/St Paul magazine about Verso here.