Print isn’t dead, Designing Media, a fascinating new doorstop of a book by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum chief Bill Moggridge, seems to say. It’s just waiting for design to save it.
That counts as one of the more provocative ideas in a book full of the stuff. Moggridge — who invented the first laptop and cofounded IDEO — takes the fraught world of media, both old and new, and looks at it as a series of design problems. How do you design news as a social platform? Or newspapers at a time when everyone’s reading websites?
Moggridge leaves the answers to the 30-plus media heavyweights he interviews, from new media tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg and Jimmy Wales to old-school true believers like Ira Glass and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Over the course of these talks — run, in edited form, with commentary from Moggridge, and also available as free videos online — one major theme emerges: Whether you’re talking about the accessibility of web content or the survival of print, design is more important now than ever before. We’ve got a Q&A with Moggridge below.
Co.Design: One of the first things you say in the book is that paper isn’t going away. Not everyone is convinced. How can you be so sure?
Bill Moggridge: It’s all to do with the nature of the experience. I think of electronic books and online book content as being good news for book designers. Because what it means is: If you just want the content in a text form, then why would you ever buy a physical book, because you can read it so successfully on an e-reader. However, if you want to enjoy a book, you buy it because it’s beautifully designed — the paper is wonderful, the color is delicious, you can smell it, you can thumb through it, you can pick it up and feel heft the way you can’t with an e-reader. So if you’re going to stick with the physical book, then let’s make sure the design of the physical book really engages you and makes you want to luxuriate in it.
Is that true for magazines and newspapers?
It’s certainly true for magazines. That’s already been proven. Magazines, with their glossy pictures, make you feel like you’re having a warm bath. You can luxuriate in every page, and you don’t mind if it’s an ad or editorial, because you love every page. The question’s much more difficult to answer for the newspaper. If you look at the Guardian — the topic of Alice Rawsthorn’s interview [above] — it’s a beautifully designed newspaper and it has been for a while. But if you look at the New York Times, it is surprisingly conservative. But still people value it. So maybe the content there is more the king. And the design or presentation is less important. Though I do think the New York Times web site is very successful and presents itself very well.
So should the print version of the New York Times — or any other newspaper — emulate The Guardian?
If you look at the USA Today it’s much richer color and more portable. Those are design elements that make it more accessible. Then, the fact that it has an audience across the country makes it viable in a more financial sense. It wouldn’t have been quite so successful if it hadn’t been designed to have this new richness to it and present an enjoyable experience.
Why write a book on designing media? And why now?
I was getting more and more interested in what’s happening in this new media space. Obviously, it’s invading so fast from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter and so on. It’s changing the face of media in general. There’s an interesting dialogue between traditional media and new media — sometimes the new pressuring the old, and sometimes there’s a nice balance formed between the two. I thought well, what’s the best way to learn more about this? Perhaps I can interview 30 or so of the best experts in the world and see what they can tell me about it?
Was it meant as a companion to your earlier book Designing Interactions about the ways digital technology has changed how people interact with physical objects?
The format is the same. I interviewed people on video and used the video to make a DVD to go on the back of the book and also to go online. If you put them next to each other they have a relationship. But one of the big differences is with this book I’ve been able to make all the PDFs of the chapters and videos available for free download at anytime.
That’s interesting because it highlights a tension pointed out in the book: How do you release content for free online but also convince people to pay for the hard copy?
One of the fist people I interviewed was Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired [see above]. At the time he’d just written a book called Free, which followed from his book The Long Tail. His thesis was that the basic enemy of successful print is people not knowing enough about the fact that something exists. So what you can do by offering online social media for free is get more people to find out about stuff. And some people will still buy the physical media — the book, the DVD, whatever medium you’re working in. His theory is: You’ll sell a lot more books if you give the content out for free. Now, I?m just experimenting with that theory, seeing if we can prove it to be true.
After doing 30-odd interviews, what are some of the big themes you drew out?
One of the biggest themes is the relationship between what’s happening online and what’s happening in the physical space. If you look at it from the point of new media, it’s not an issue, because of places like Google and Facebook; they don’t have to worry about what’s happening to their existing business. But if you look at traditional media — newspapers, magazines, and books — they have infrastructural overhead. And you see a different financial model emerging in their online versions. And they’re usually dramatically less. So organizations have to find a new balance. In general, they see a reduction in income because ad rates are so much lower in new media. If you’ve got a huge building in New York with a huge staff that’s a problem. But if you’re a new media organization, you don’t have to worry about that all. How it shakes out for the existing traditional media is a big question. I don’t think it’ll resolve itself for a decade or two but you certainly see the elements of shift there.
Another interesting theme is the question of what you crowd-source and what you offer as expertise. Wikipedia was a particularly interesting interview for me in that regard. People think of Wikipedia as being completely crowd-sourced. But when I talked to [founder] Jimmy Wales, I found out he has this sophisticated structure of controlling content, which is based first on the volunteer administration, then the volunteer senior administrators, then on his board, then on the top — what he calls himself, King Jim. He relates it to a monarchy. So the control necessary in a design sense to make crowd-source content reliable and work properly is quite a sophisticated thing. And I think we’ll see a lot more of that shaking out.
What about the aesthetics of web content? What makes for a successful new media site?
My interview with Chad Hurley about YouTube was quite interesting. He’s from a design background himself. He started as a graphic designer. And he was very deliberate about making the design of YouTube accessible to everyone. It didn’t have an elitist quality. It’s comfortable and easy to access — what you’d expect from a trained graphic designer. That’s a design quality in and of itself. it’s an anti-design quality. That is, it’s trying to make something that’s appropriate without being obviously beautiful. You see that working with sites like Google. Google’s very pristine simplicity was something that attracted people when it started, though it didn’t look very much like design. The typography wasn’t great. But it was simple compared to the Internet world at that time which was full of flashing banner ads. There was a big contrast. So designing something that really has the right appropriate qualities for the audience at that time is always driving stuff online.
One of the recurring ideas in the book is that online news is designed to be social, so that people interact with journalists and form communities and so on. Does that work for certain sites only? Or is it the future of online news?
There’s a sense of potential community that was not quite followed through in the Internet-based media in the beginning. When the Internet became popular back in the ?90s, people thought it would produce communities, it would produce groups of people doing things together. In fact, what happened in the early years was quite the opposite. It’s where people went to look at pages of stuff. So they would move around in virtual space from page to page. And they were often print page that’d just been put online. Very boring, actually. So it took until 2.0 with high capabilities and being able to stream things for that community potential to emerge. You look at Facebook and Twitter as the most exaggerated versions of that, but they are designed to produce that combination of finding friends and finding people with similar interests. You’re finding new communities that are online-based, rather than just a physical village.
Hence all these predictions that Facebook is taking over the Internet. Do you think the design is such that it could replace traditional news, too?
I?m not so sure about that. But if you look at email for example, it’s sort of a horrible medium. It’s not got very many design qualities that you enjoy. And Facebook could replace email perhaps in the sense that if you’re finding yourself more and more often in a place where you can do more things: see your friends, connect with people, send messages. So why bother going back to email?
What about music? How’s design shaping up there?
Tim Westergren’s Pandora is very interesting. The idea of having a musical genome is something that fascinates me. With a very simple genome, you can describe something like color with three or four criteria. So what Tim did with Pandora was to take something as subjective as music with all its different qualities — instruments and voices and feelings — and analyze that so that it has 400 attributes instead of four. It makes something subjective possible to define, and you help people reach things they enjoy. We’ll see more and more of that stuff. The more clever our analysis becomes, we’ll be able to combine it with subjective evaluation. That’s an important point. Tim uses experts to quantify these things. It’s not algorithmic. It’s a human choice. But it’s within an algorithmic structure. You could see that being applied to anything.
What do you want people get out of reading your book (or just watching the interviews)?
My position here at Cooper-Hewitt is about trying to explain design to people. I?m fascinated by the fact that everything is designed, whether it’s our buildings, food, or everyday objects. They all had decisions made about the way they are. That’s design. With media, you don’t think of the design of it readily at all. When you go into it and talk to people, you find out that yes, everything is designed and very deliberate and highly evolved and iterative — all those aspects of a design process. I?m hoping that people take away the idea that media truly is designed.