Daily Features

E-Printed Matter

Harnessing the unique potential of digital design books and apps

By Bryn Smith, Superscript August 16, 2013

Last month during the Liverpool Biennial, a panel discussion on new strategies for online publications was appropriately titled “Post-Print Publishing?” The note of interrogation was apt, as industry-wide focus shifts away from mourning the demise of print—which was never really dead anyway—to defining and exploring new models for digital distribution. In parallel, e-book titles and apps devoted to design, art, and architecture have seen a steady increase in the last year as new and established publishers learn to navigate this liminal space. This territory should be equally exciting to designers, who may find unexpected or unusual approaches to familiar subjects in the expanding range of platforms. The recent release of Interaction of Color, the classic text on studying and teaching color written by artist Josef Albers in 1963, as a responsive iPad app, provides a critical point for reflection and a worthy moment to tour the current landscape of digital design publishing.

The Interaction of Color mobile app for iPad (Yale University Press) creates new ways to experience Josef Albers’s original masterwork. Courtesy of Yale University Press
The app allows users to see all of the related plates for each chapter and tap on a plate to study it in detail. Courtesy of Yale University Press
In line with Albers's teaching methods, plates are designed to recreate the experience of working with paper. Users can move the plates, which snap back into place when they lift their finger. Courtesy of Yale University Press


Video content includes footage of scholars, designers, and Albers’s former students discussing the text and plates, as well as archival footage of Albers teaching. Photo courtesy of Yale University Press

The first thing you notice, if you’re already familiar with Interaction of Color, is the app’s nearly seamless integration of text and visual material. The 125 color plates, 60 of which are interactive, are always accessible; lined up neatly along the text’s left edge, or horizontally scrollable below Albers’s notes. In contrast to both the original and subsequent paperback editions, which required constant flipping between text, plates, and commentary, this feature feels like a revelation. Equally impressive is the included archival video footage of Albers in the classroom. Though the clips are short, his enthusiasm for his students and for the subject of color is palpable and enthralling. While the simplicity of the interface can feel like cheating at times, it’s also easy to imagine that Albers might approve of this evolution in his experiential method. Future students will push around pixels instead of colored paper, but the process of discovery is fundamentally the same. The app by Yale University Press and Potion, is an example that doesn’t replace but builds upon and enhances the original. Note that the iTunes download is free but requires an in-app purchase of $9.99 to access full features.  

 Alphabet, Numerals & Devices of the Middle Ages by Henry Shaw was first printed in London in 1845. The e-book includes the book's 25 plates. Photo courtesy of MAPP.

Versions, a London-based independent publisher, falls into a similar framework. Working from a personal hit list of rare and out-of-print visual books, co-founders Radovan Scasascia and Laurence Oliver, aim to create e-books that are not digital copies of their printed counterparts, but new digital versions tailored and redesigned to the medium. “We believe that by stripping a book of its palpability we have to give something back to it,” said Scasascia by email. “What those added elements are will vary from book to book,” he added. Their first title, the ongoing photography project The Olympic City by Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit, was originally released in a limited edition of 1,000 cloth-bound hardcover books. Scasascia concedes that the digital version is in a way the “total antithesis” of the lavishly packaged object, and that experiencing a visual book on a tablet is still a foreign concept for most consumers, but emphasizes that the point is not to replace printed matter. In addition to developing original content, Versions is currently working on the Braun+Design Collection, an out-of-print compendium of industrial products designed by the German manufacturer Braun between 1955 and 1990. Edited by graphic designers Jo Klatt and Günter Staeffler, and written in German, the book is prohibitively expensive on the used market. Scasascia and Oliver envision their upcoming version as an indispensable and affordable resource for students and design buffs alike.

The Olympic City by Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit explores what happens to an Olympic city when the games are done. Courtesy of Versions Publishing.

MAPP, also based in London, takes a slightly different approach. Founded in 2011 with a focus on translating illustrated content to digital form, its growing list of titles include rare sample books and unusual publications, photography, maps, and art. A majority of the books are presented as scanned plates of the physical editions, complete with yellowing pages and ink stains. From an illustrated Russian children’s book published in 1904, to antiquarian Henry Shaw’s Alphabet, Numerals & Devices of the Middle Ages, designers and book lovers may be surprised to find a great resource for reference material and inspiration. 

The Books

The Dot-Com City Alexandra Lange
The Olympic City Gary Hustwit
Jon Pack

Following a very different model, digital-first publishing platforms emphasize long-form essays and new critical writing on design. These include Strelka Press, edited by design critic Justin McGuirk, and the Cooper-Hewitt’s DesignFile. The first batch of essays from Strelka, featured minimal graphic covers and provocative writings on urbanism, architecture, and imaginary TED talks among other topics. Their most recent release, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, penned by the design collective Metahaven, is an engaging read on the intersection of internet memes, graphic design, and politics. DesignFile, launched in February of this year, has yet to expand beyond its initial three titles, but plans to release six to twelve e-books annually ranging in length from 7,500 to 20,000 words. Partnering with academic institutions, DesignFile’s goal is to bring master’s theses and design-related research to a broader audience.


DesignFile, Cooper-Hewitt's e-book series. Photos courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt

This spring, the Architectural Association released its first e-books via imprint Bedford Press with the Civic City Cahier series. Also available in print, though the first two volumes are no longer available, the monographic texts average 30 pages and are themed around the role of design for a new social city. Further titles are forthcoming with plans to digitize the popular Architecture Words series, though no word yet on whether the AA’s e-books will eventually include its extensive backlist.

Though largely unknown and unexplored, the unique potential of e-books and apps to inform design, designers, and design publishing, is slowly coming into focus. You don’t have to agree with Debbie Millman, who recently gushed that the Interaction of Color app creates a better book, but you’d still be well served to consider the possibility.

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