I am working on a collaborative research project with Dr. Peter Chan from OSU Design around the visual language of books -- specifically the differences and similarities that can be found in book design when moving from a traditional format to that of an electronic book or digital magazine. 

As part of this research, I recently had a rare opportunity to attend a lecture at OSU by Dr. Johanna Drucker -- the author, visual theorist and critic, who had some wonderful insights into this very topic. 

Some of the research she is involved with right now revolves around bringing to the surface the latent visual languages of traditional books such they can be utilized in digital mediums to establish conventions for digital book design. 

Her central thesis was that layout and structure in traditional book design exists as a result of need for specialized use (academic, editorial, etc.) and was developed as a part of the historical movements of writing, printing and publishing. Looked at this way, graphic layout is really an expression of functionality -- a set of instructions about how you digest the content being so framed. 

She described five functions of a book:

  • Presentation: the material presentation of the book
  • Representation: the semantic elements of the book that provide the meaning and metaphor for the text
  • Navigation: the wayfinding elements of the text, the page orientation, page numbers, table of contents and indices
  • Reference: the bibliography and citations; the elements of the book that describe the internal relationships between the text and the authority
  • Interpretation/mediation: The social discourse that accompanies a text, the margin notes and foot notes that provide the metadata. 

She continued by looking at how these functions mapped between analogue and digital mediums and what their characteristics were. She suggested the following:

Presentation Relative stability Re-inscribable
Represenation Suggestive Distributed across modalities
Navigation Bounded Unbounded/unframed
Reference Notes/sources Links
Interpretation Slow refresh Real time


Whether you agree with the general thesis that graphic layout and structure are expressions of the functionality of a book or not, Dr. Drucker's research provides some intriguing avenues for exploration when considering the design of digital books.

For example, how does one deal with the unbounded nature of digital books such that the wayfinding experience is not completely destroyed making it impossible for a reader to understand where they are relative to the overall structure of the book. 

Another example involves understanding the implications of real time interpretations of books. How does the experience of a book change when the margin or foot notes are updated in real time as you are reading? And at what point do we enter into more of a collaborative reading/writing experience rather than an individual one. 

We are already seeing examples of this latter exploration in applications such as Flipboard for the iPad, where commentary that has been written about an article shows up in a side column in real time as I am reading the article itself.  

Even though it is in it's infancy, digital book (and magazine) design could be greatly enhanced by having a set of standards around which the experience of the book is shaped. And while there may be other functions that need to be defined for the unique medium of eBook readers, tablet computers, or the Web, looking back into the history of traditional media and building on the work of graphic design seems like a good place to start. 

If anyone has any thoughts, references or resources on the evolution of the book and it's digital form please feel free to comment or send me an e-mail.

AuthorJoshua David