Kindle DX: Why Size Matters

People have a lot of expectations for the new, larger-sized Kindle DX. Interesting how a shift in size / form factor can hold the fate of an entire industry (newspapers in this case) in its hand. Wow, the power of industrial design! I wish a larger screen could save the Boston Globe. But I doubt that is the case, at least not in the way people are hoping.

kindle proportionsFirst, let me put my loyalties on the table. I have a huge attachment to newspapers. The front page of The New York Times has been a constant in my life. When my great grandfather emigrated to this country from Eastern Europe, he learned English by translating the front page of the Times every day. I will never forget my dad's teaching me that elegant business-man trick of reading the Times with one hand on the subway. And my mom, who has written about food for the times for more than 30 years, has had her byline appear on the front page twice in that period. It will take a lot for me to cancel my subscription to the print version.

The front page of the paper is an amazing piece of work. It is not just a collection of stories. It is a frame of reference—an informed perspective on what is important each day. And it is conveyed at a glance, through images and text only—a rich data visualization devoid of any abstraction. The interplay between the multi-column layout, use of images, headlines and column inches, all communicate different things about the news. The editors and designers work these different instruments into a perfect harmony each day. I was fortunate to attend a presentation (sponsored by Liz Danzico from SVA) in which Tom Bodkin, the Design Director of the Times for many years, talked about how the front page is composed. He used the Obama victory as an example, showing how it had evolved throughout the day. It is a wonderful balance of science (the ranking of stories based on their importance in the news cycle) with art (hand-composed sketches that Tom produces each day).

Despite my attachment to the paper, I do more and more reading online these days, particularly on my iPhone. I read approximately 45 feeds as well as portions of the Times and the Wall Street Journal almost every day. But I am getting really tired of lists. Lists don't tell me much. Yet very few news sites offer anything more than lists (Fast Company being no exception). Even Digg hasn't gone beyond a simple list, despite the richness of community participation. Lists are a clear reminder that you are looking at search results, not news.

There are a number of popular experiments that try and break out of this lazy format. Newsmap generated a lot of buzz when it launched. And GoogleLabs recently started playing around with a timeline application for viewing news. While these experiments break out of the simple list format, they are still pure machine logic. There is no editorial point of view encoded in the frame.

tapemeasureBack to size. It is hard to express an editorial point of view in a flat list. Even with dramatic improvements in Web display technologies, we still spend a lot of time talking with our Web clients about "magazine-like" layouts that offer greater variety in size and positioning of content. These multi-column layouts are fundamentally different for one important reason: juxtaposition! The minute you juxtapose two things you create contrast. You tell a story. Scott McCloud, of Understanding Comics, famously explains how meaning is created in the gutter, between the panels. In the juxtaposition of one moment with the next in both time (as you read) and space.

There are few design principles more important than juxtaposition. But why should you care if you are not a designer? Juxtaposition is the future of print media. And, frankly, this future is largely unrealized online. As I read different posts in Google Reader each day I traverse a dizzying array of topics. But I can't ever put two articles side by side the way the editorial board of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal can. If you are in the news/content business, you better be looking for every possible way to leverage your editorial perspective and build it into the medium going forward. To encode your frame of reference in software.

The front page of the Times is a collective frame of reference that projects the authority of the paper. It reflects a huge amount of collective decision-making. But what if I could get the Paul Krugman or the Nick Kristoff version instead? What if I could see the news through their individual frames and not just the collective voice of the Times? To see not just what they write, but what they think is important each day. Not just The New York Times content, but everything that they come across of note. Sure, I can visit their blogs. But things just march off the page in a fixed order. Their is no nuance. No frame.

KindleDXI follow a lot of people through their blogs and Tweets. I would love to encode their frames more explicitly into my news consumption. Instead of the Science Times, I want the Behavior Times edited/curated by Dan Lockton. Instead of the Home section I want the Design Section edited/curated by Khoi Vinh. I want Katrin Verclas or Eric Hersman's version of the International Page. My business page would be curated by James Surowiecki. And my Tech page by Clive Thompson. "Following" them would take on a new meaning.

That is the future of news media to me, once we get past the simple lists that we are stuck with today. And size is a critical element. As I write this, I am staring at early images of the new Kindle with its new 9.7-inch screen. And the Times is featured prominently in most of the press images...in a single column layout. The key to the future of news is juxtaposition, brought to you, I hope by the Kindle 4.

Robert is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

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