ent-Retaining digital readers

Picture: The Van der Graaf or Tertiary Canon, used for page design creates harmony by its rules -which- lead the textblock to having the same ratio of the page, but it also positions it in perfectly whole units.

Publishers should care about the difficulties created by digital reading, leading to users nowadays to lose attention and becoming distracted while reading online or, being the case, any digital platform.

When you design a book, you ideally set a page size, layout and ortho-typographic characteristics for it. Every publisher worth his/her salt has to guarantee an ideal formatting of their books so they help the reader to get a better understanding of the content.

There is no agreed philosophy on this, some say roman fonts are better for long books, some say grotesques are better, some defend wider margins and white space, while others keep broad columns filled with text. In any of those cases, there is a clear purpose on the Publisher’s part to satisfy the readers needs as per their mission and philosophy.

We all remember “The Crystal Goblet” by Beatrice Warde, taught in our Design class, where you can only delight on the content when you do not nottice the recipient. I also remember seeing a documentary where they said, the cup has to be wide, so the corners of your mouth, which have lots of sensory terminals, could soak in the wine (or water) and you get a much improved sensation while drinking. I found this to be true, but what matters of these couple metaphors, is that, just like Pottery does to your drinking, Editorial Design also have its ways to enhance the readers experience. And its because of their mere existence, that Publishers have the responsibility to apply them to every field they intervene.

Several studies, some of which we reviewed last week  (here is another, just for completion purposes), point out that reading online hinders the optimal comprehension (i.e. to grasp the nature, significance, or meaning of… something) of the content. Yet, these platforms are common among all of us, whether for reading books, or to learn other contents, not available elsewhere.

So why would a digital publisher should not care about their readers fully comprehending the contents they publish and thus, provide the optimal format for this? The only reasons I can think of, is the ignorance of these format conventions, or the ways to code or implement them in their products.

Beyond these formal rules, there are other factors that keep readers distracted from the text, these have more to do with the multi-task and all encompassing lifestyles we are continually being suggested, it has nothing to do with the comfortability of reading on one or other platform. People have always been able to drink something while reading, but now they also need to be checking the screen of their phones at all times, the result (I soaked my book while drinkng my tea and checcking phone”. Before this, the -dial- phone also ringed some times, or night came and people could not read, there was hardly a time when you could do nothing else but reading (except an IELTS certification exam of course), but since books have existed, people have taken measures to provide an optimal reading, from creating spaces dedicated to the activity, to the lecterns, reading lamps, seats and many other gadgets. It was even a ritualized activity! And they have also invented a bunch of reasons why they don’t read.

Nowadays, most people believe it is a “democratic” privilege to be able to read on the go, while on the bus or train, from the screen of a reader, tablet or smartphone. It is also believed, everything on the screen is something to be readable, while it is not, sometimes it is not even legible. This is where publishers of all kinds have messed up with the act of reading on their part.

Lets consider the famous “accessibility” feature of digital texts, an elegant name for “zoom in/out” in most cases. Does this help people read better? From the designer point of view, it is an aberration, because the screen size limits the column width, and with this, all the careful work usually done on a printed book is thrown in favor of bigger letters and shorter lines. The mere fact to be scrolling down to reach the next line is a distraction. When people had “accessibility” problems with printed books, they bought a magnifying glass,there are some like a sheet you put on top of the book and you have your accessibility, you don’t mess with the layout, period. This may be a rudimentary example, but it shows how these technologies are not necessarily new.

So yes, it is not only their responsibility but also their fault things are screwed up like this.

So what can be done? From the design POV, first and foremost would be to learn the basic -and advanced- principles of formatting texts, including the editing canon, even if you are not going to do the formatting, you will at least know how it would look like. Then, learn how they can be implemented in digital works.

Primitive digital books in PDF preserved page format, today we have CSS to do that online. For all the myriad of possible digital texts, we have to learn how to control the text flow on a screen, and what are the best results that can be achieved with them.

Text now interacts with video, hyperlinks, buttons, menus, etc. The digital reading age is in fact too young and ever changing, but most of the basic obstacles have been overcome, so it is a matter of putting some interest to the task, not just writing a long column for a blog or leaving the available space after that huge banner in your website. Ebooks need a major set of rules, and it  will just take a successful publisher to find the ideal format, at least for one of the many platforms out there. Its a worthy excercise, an ongoing one I insist, contrary to the centennial rules of book publishing, we are living the age where these matters are about to emerge.

Final note: And fear not because we are human beings, capable of adapting to new standards, given enough time, so even if no one achieves a successful result, we will deal with reading on five or six different ways anyway

Oh! and just a final note: That Van der Graaf thing, was not exclusive to


2 Replies to “ent-Retaining digital readers”

  1. Insightful comments! So in your opinion, it is less about the external distractions of our busy lives, or even the content of the digital medium, but rather the formatting that has lead to lowered comprehension? While I agree that design has a huge influence on our ability to read deeply, I think we must also acknowledge other external factors that have lead to a decreased ability to read deeply (such as social media’s influence).

    I’d agree that we are still in a very early stage of ebook and digital reading production, and it will take some trial and error to figure out the best formula for deep reading and focused attention. Right now, as you point out, we are trying do copy and paste what we know works for print and use it in the digital realm, but you seem to disagree with this method. Do you think we need to try something bolder, something completely different? Do you think digital reading should look vastly different than print reading?

  2. HI Sarah! Thank you for your kind comment. You are right, the change in our lifestyles and interaction with other media has lead to a different approach in acquiring knowledge from reading, our habits have changed yes, yet, people used to read books in the train, you know, I once read some “pocket books” for science fiction had chapters with a length similar to the average trip of the user. But since technologies for printed books (layout, typographic systems, printing systems, paper, etc.) Have evolved over centuries, reading was something constant. I know is very difficult to preserve this format”as is” for e-readers for example, some technologies try to simulate the printed form but does not abide by some of its more important rules. For example, the “Ink paper” was developed so people have the feel they are reading an actual page but they have not kept the layout rules for readability for example, so just by zooming in/out or cutting the paragraphs to adapt to so many different devices, creates an unbalance if they want to preserve the “Codex” format. Thus, any serious intent to replicate books fails as soon as they operate under the premise that writings make books by themselves. How then, can we say an ebook is a “book” just because it has letters in it? I hope you will agree that any serious study using printed reading as a parameter of reference with a system that forgets what makes the printed reading, is flawed from the start.

    As for the evolution of digital reading, yes, I think it will evolve into something not drastically different but sufficient enough to become a separate entity, we just saw some examples of interactive narratives which take advantage of the technology they are using, we can expect those media to evolve (even explode like in the Cambrian age) , into many different media, of which, some will survive and others will disappear (like the e-readers as we know them today). Its not that I disagree with the intents of copying the printed text into the digital form, but there is an ontological misconception of what a book is, again, books contain writings, but not all writings are books.

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