How the iPad Might Bring Us Back to Our Print Roots


I'm going to admit that I'm excited about the iPad. And from the buzz it seems I might be alone on this one. I'm seeing comments that range from, "That's it?" to "This is an iPhone with a larger screen." Adding to the thoughtful sentiments are calls for the heads of AT&T executives for their sub par network service. I've got my pitchfork and torch in hand and am ready for the AT&T witchhunt, but I'm putting them down to use an iPad first.

My excitement doesn't brew from iPad's functionality out-of-the-box but from its potential in changing how we design dense information Web sites. I remember 15 years ago the utter confusion publishers were going through to understand the impact of the Internet on publishing and how they would take their paper or magazine and "put it on the screen." As designers, we didn't know much in the ways of user experience, site usage, and reality. So the result was years of designers figuring out how to convert Quark layouts to look exactly the same on a screen as they do in the finished print publication.

Sports Illustrated's pre-Pad effort

I've seen it all, from demands to provide printable PDFs of publications as downloadable links (nobody cared that the publication scaled down to print on an 8 1/2 x 11 with an amazingly legible font size of -1), to calls to make "pages turn." As designers, we put on our flash skills to create wonderful page curls that allowed users to click and drag "pages." This, too, went down as a nonstarter (none of this accounts for the hell we put our database administrators through to feed content in appropriately).

So print designers started to learn differences in Web design and suddenly we started to see a new breed of designer. One who understood the concept of search engine optimization, meta data, code, interaction, user experience, Web standards, and dare I say it, RGB over CMYK.

We learned, but we always yearned for the day when we would be able to create a print quality publication online that could still hold up to the minute-by-minute content changes and demands of an enterprise publisher.


Let's take GQ, for example. GQ has gone right for the jugular and is providing hope for what may be the design approach of the future. With monthly publication cycles, ad requirements, enterprise-level content management needs, and an established brand, they are in my definition an enterprise publisher.

GQ has found ways to design their print publication, feed the content into their Web presence, and (here's where it gets interesting) create a branded subscription product for the iPhone, that allows many elements of the print magazine to come through as it was designed for print! And it doesn't look...well...stupid!!

Don't get too excited yet! GQ is likely not getting an enormous subscription push on its iPhone app, and I've found the issue takes a bit too long to download in increments even with wi-fi. When held vertically, the magazine produces a clean but predictable experience. Turn the iPhone horizontally and voila, the full magazine displays in print layout. It even overlays buttons to visit advertiser Web sites and buttons to view video content. Navigating from spread to spread is a breeze but still requires zooming for better legibility.

Will the iPad perform any better? We'll have to see.

Screenshots of the GQ pages on the iPhone

Simply by giving me more screen space I may have the ability to see GQ in two, three, or, dare I say, six column layouts without turning the device!? This can get crazier. The iPad could allow readers to flip through content as they would the magazine by turning pages or in more sophisticated ways. (The main difference being, you'll use your fingers rather than the bar of soap, a.k.a. the mouse). Once again, out-of-the-box this won't be possible with the iPad, but thumbing through content could be a near-term enhancement with the device.

So why won't we see fantastic "iPad only" publications tomorrow? Ahhh, the trifecta which business, technology, and design all have to sit together to plan and invest. It seems so simple but planning is amazingly overlooked. Who are we trying to reach, how will we measure success, and will we have the flexibility to change on every device? Lastly, can we learn about our audience and use the knowledge to better each experience?

Adding to the cacophony of roadblocks there are various technical issues waiting to confront us. More complex business knowledge is becoming a prerequisite for multi-device designers. Font and layout handling cross device is also increasing in complexity. Staffing a creative department that can design to all of these devices when mastering one is an art unto itself. And getting technology in place to manage the content flexibly across all devices is a challenge—when (or if) the hell will Adobe and Apple make nice and get Flash working on Apple's OS? The list goes on and on.

Yet, if all goes well in a year I'll be fireside, with a beautifully mounted AT&T executive's head on my wall, and some relaxing music playing. And I'll be thumbing through a Feb 2011 issue of GQ on my iPad.

Related: Will Magazine Design Flourish or Fizzle on the iPad?

Read Giovanni Calabro's blog Design Pragmatist
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Giovanni Calabro has over 13 years of experience leading interactive research and design efforts for a wide range of business sectors. At Siteworx, Giovanni leads the design team responsible for user experience strategy, brand analysis, search engine optimization (SEO), search and analytics integration and social media strategy. With clients as diverse as MTV Networks,, NPR, and JPMorgan Chase, Giovanni provides expert strategy and advice in the areas of stakeholder and staff alignment and new publishing models for emerging platforms such as social media and mobile channels. 



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  • Jasmine Noel

    I really hope that the iPad brings back formatting and font richness to online content (I'm tired of everything looking like a blog).

    But I agree with Richard Geller to me the key to online pubs (books and magazine) is 'community' and I think that has been a missing part of design for these new mobile platforms. When I read a book or a magazine article I have a shared experience with a community of others that have read it as well.

    So for me the design question comes down to -- how does one layout an iPad magazine or book that delivers visually interesting content and enables both the community of readers and sponsors to enrich the experience of reading that content?

  • Ondrej Capka

    Well, yes thumb up for magazines, thumbs down for books.
    Huge discussion is going on about iPad winning over Kindle. That is not gonna happen. iPad is very bad tool for reading books (LED, Battery, heat from 1GHz chipset just to name a few).
    BUT, iPad is for so many people too sexy to avoid. Thus im afraid, that with 5 mil. iPads sold, 5 mil. people will jump off the ebook band-wagon.
    iPad is not a nightmare of Amazon, but a nightmare of book publishers. There was a 1 year of hope, that books are getting a second breath, its over now...

  • Richard Geller

    I have say I'm in violent agreement about the potential of eMags to outshine their print predecessors—especially in terms of the richness of the experience delivered. That said, an eMag is "a community of interest" not a ePublication. I feel a bit like a voice in the wilderness saying that, but the web, by it's nature is not fundamentally one-way broadcast (magazine). Real-time informed (and, yes, uninformed) comments by a potentially engaged community changes the nature of the experience utterly. In fact, the whole idea of subscription needs to be replaced by some notion of membership in that community as a part of the mix with advertising that makes eMags a viable enterprise. It is this notion of "a community of interest" versus a one-way broadcast that truly differentiates one from the other—the hardware platform not so much.

    Richard Geller

  • Patricia Mejia

    Congrats to Gio for his first Fast Company blog post. Please help us launch his new blog by reading and commenting on the story. No need to agree ... dialogue is what we're looking for.