in Books

Future Book!

Thoughts on the creative possibilities of the future textbook

There is a slightly tatty paperback on my bookshelf. It doesn’t often get to see the light of day but in its time it’s hung around various design studios and has been passed around any number of creative types. It is the 1975 paperback edition of Josef Albers’ teaching tool The Interaction of Color.

Originally published in 1963 The Interaction of Color presented Albers’ theory that colour was governed by an “internal and deceptive logic”. Alongside the texts and commentary in the original edition Albers included 150 silkscreened plates intended for use in the classroom.

However, it’s my tatty 1975 paperback (with its small number of illustrations) that many would best know: a limiting format that doesn’t do the work any justice. The Interaction of Color was never meant to be read in such a limited, linear fashion, divorced from its rich illustrations. As such it is a perfect work to be given the interactive treatment – and in July this year Yale University Press launched the The Interaction of Color iPad app.

As a designer working in digital publishing this is an exciting project. The impact of digital on the industry is obviously huge, and projects like The Interaction of Color iPad app are significant pointers to the capabilities of the future textbook.

Albers’ exercises are all included in the app. Users can create, compare, save and share their own colour experiments. And of course functions that enable linking, annotating and bookmarking are all included – as is video. This is an addition that Albers could have never anticipated and it is to the app designers’ credit that this video content sits seamlessly alongside the texts and interactive studies. The ability to create studies is the most powerful tool in the app. Studies can be saved, commented on and shared. Colour pallets can be created and saved and used across studies.

The app does not pander to the book metaphor. There are no page curls or skeuomorphic page turning animations and so on. Unlike much of the digital publishing industry, it does not wholly align itself to the physical and metaphorical. It is the kind of design project that rises above the hackneyed ‘flat vs skeuomorphic’ debate. This app has great visual design – with enough affordance and signposting to understand the interactive model without relying too heavily on metaphors.

The Interaction of Color feels like an appropriately designed experience. It does not simply pander to current design trends and is a fantastic example of the level of design excellence that can be achieved at the intersection of hardware and software.

It is obvious tablet usage is growing as the technology gets cheaper. Tesco has just launched a £119 tablet with the questionable name of Hudl (‘the whole family can huddle around the Hudl’). Tablets and smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and integrated into our lives in a way unimaginable just 10 years ago. There is a mass of evidence pointing to the rise of tablet and mobile devices in the realm of education.

I was lucky enough to catch postgraduate medical student Joshua Harding talk at UKSG 2013 back in April. His presentation described his transformation into a paperless student.  He very succinctly summed up his issue with the printed textbook by showing a photo of the entire set of textbooks and ringbound notes from his first degree – a rather large pile.

His problem was obvious: how to quickly find information within that pile. So Joshua abandoned paper and went 100% digital. His iPad ‘study buddy’ was with him always, allowing him full access to all his texts wherever he might be. He could quickly find information through the search capabilities of his iPad. His notes and annotations were also made on his iPad – and could be linked and cross referenced with his textbook content.

Based on such experiences its easy to imagine the value of tablets in the classroom, and the opportunities digital brings to both instructors and students.

The networked device

There is a growing ‘standard’ feature set for digital texts. You can bookmark, highlight and annotate just like you could do with a paper textbook. But with digital you can also cite, track, organise, share, discuss and generally exploit the interconnectivities of the internet. No longer constrained by the linear format of the printed book, students can construct their own narratives individually and collectively and tailor the multitude of shared user generated narratives to their own needs.

The Kindle provides an excellent example of the usefulness of annotation tools within a networked environment. When a sentence gets highlighted everyone sees it – the more people that highlight the same sentence, the more affordance is given to the highlight that everyone sees. This functionality opens the door to user generated hierarchies just as link tracking helps generate user defined navigation.

To be able to align these sorts of social, utilitarian feature sets with the design consideration of texts such as The Interaction of Color and apply them to digital books that live online (and are therefore updatable, live, and delivered seamlessly across multiple devices) should be the utopian aim of today’s etextbook designers and developers.

In Future Shock (1970) Alvin Toffler argued that the accelerated rate of technological and social change caused people to be ‘Future Shocked’ or left in a state of “shattering stress and disorientation”.  It was hard not to think about Future Shock when I attended the recent AGI Open panel discussion on the current state of editorial design. There seemed to be a little bit of Future Shock in the eyes of the venerable members of the AGI when digital was discussed.

But they were reassured by strong evidence that print is not dead, or even dying. Hyphen Press and Unit Editions provided perfect examples of publishers producing small runs of beautifully crafted books for a niche audience. A smaller run means more care over design and construction and has a parallel with music formats. Vinyl had been long pronounced dead but a new audience has now embraced this (apparently) anachronistic format. Sales are up and so is the quality: todays pressings all seem to be of the 180g variety – reassuringly thick and heavy. A little like my huge Unit Editions Herb Lubalin book:

So the book is not dead. It has a little life yet. It’s possibly going to be more specialised, more  niche.

And with digital the opportunities and possibilities are there for all to see. The Interaction of Color app is an assured step into the future and hopefully a sign of things to come.

An edited (therefore probably less meandering) version of this post first appeared on the Semantico blog.