By Zarina Holmes
REPORT: “Whatever is to become of books?” at London Design Festival 2011. At the Inspiration Room event held at University College London last week, Creative Director of Bonnier Technology Group, Sam Syed, presented a storytelling platform for tablets that challenges the traditional notion of a page as the placeholder for linear storytelling. “The page is a cage,” he proclaimed, a statement that was met with both enthusiasm and criticism by story producers and image-makers. Mag+ has demonstrated at the event that a page is no longer flat surface it once was.
“Popular Science is not a magazine,” Sam Syed said of the magazine he works on. “I don’t know what it is. It’s a synthesis of different things.”
The award-winning Popular Science iPad magazine, produced on the Mag+ platform, is a convergence of text, graphic design layout, typography, video and tactile interactivity. It is a 360º experience in 2D storytelling for those who are ready to allow stories to be presented this way.
Mag+ is clearly a game-changing publishing application. It has been successfully built as an extension to Adobe InDesign, the print industry’s main application. It also offers a lifeline to print-based designers wanting to make the crossover to tablet content publishing, without them having to abandon the elegant print grammar.
Furthermore, it makes economic sense to have the same designer producing the magazine medium in both print and digital formats.
The page is no longer flat
What Mag+ has successfully done is adding layers on top of images or videos, and adding interactivity element on annotations to make the page more engaging for tablet readers. It also retains the familiar page-flicking hand motion with page swiping.
Given the space economy on tablets and mobile readers, layering is an obvious solution for rich content storytelling. Syed disagrees that the space economy factor on tablets should result in “aesthetic austerity” and rigid storytelling.
Translating a print magazine or newspaper content into online medium can be a frustrating task for designers and editors. Up until now, an ordinary content management system (CMS) of a website cannot properly convey the beauty of typography and page layout as well as on books or magazines.
A conventional web page is effectively a static column starting from top to bottom. Mag+ is created to challenge this concept by introducing linear as well as sequential storytelling. As a result, Syed said: “You have to de-construct your parallel structures, and re-construct them as linear storytelling.”
The return of the Art Director
Syed explained further that he uses the storyboard to design his story with the magazine editor. Storyboard? It sounds a lot like a film making process. On Mag+, video is an important storytelling element that is being integrated as part of the interactive layout, instead of an isolated rectangle surrounded by text.
So, imagine a piece of magazine editorial being discussed and directed beforehand like a movie.
In recent years, photography and design have been reduced to being add-on elements in an editorial process, not as a vital part of the storytelling itself.
Both disciplines are often treated as after-thoughts and are placed in the “production” phase of publishing, which is towards the end before printing.
This creates a degenerative storytelling culture generally known as “Mac monkeying”, where the creatives’ roles are reduced to operating the Mac and filling the layouts with images and text. Within this limited space, designers are unable to push the boundaries of storytelling and meet the demands of an increasingly interactive audience.
This apparent “death of storytelling” has been discussed in my article “It’s all digital now” (July 2010) featuring an interview with former Observer photojournalist Sally Soames.
She pointed out the disappearing culture of editorial discussion between the editors and photojournalists today, as more news images are supplied remotely by external photo agencies.
With Mag+ platform, the art direction discussion will be brought in much earlier into the editorial process, which will improve the narrative and enhance user experience of a particular story.
Photographers must think outside the box – and beyond rectangles
Looking at the tablet publishing platforms today, it is obvious to see where storytelling and photography are going.
Rich contents such as video, audio and graphic elements are becoming an integral part of the editorial. Soon it is no longer enough to simply call ourselves a photographer or wordsmith.
“It would be nice to think of a positive world where you could create a magic book, [like] Harry Potter’s book,” Syed concluded while showing the animated front cover of the Popular Science iPad magazine to the London Design Festival audience at the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre.
He also urged photographers to challenge their roles as storytellers who merely frame and crop scenes into rectangles.
His opinion echoed the late Tim Hetherington’s controversial statement in 2010 on living in the “post-photographic” era:
“If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”
Critics panned Hetherington’s view, but he soon went on to win the Oscar for his war documentary, “Restrepo”.
As for the future of books, it is no longer enough to define them as print or electronic.
Mag+ is the first of many exciting tablet storytelling platforms to come.
It is too early to predict where this new form of storytelling is heading. The good thing is, we are now liberated from static storytelling.
Sam Syed’s iPad presentation at “Whatever is to become of books?” at the London Design Festival 2011 will be available on iTunes soon for download. More on Bonnier’s R&D updates at www.bonnier.com/betalab
You can see the photos of the event at this Facebook link.