E-Readers: Design Democracy or Design Anarchy?

Picture yourself in a first-grade classroom.  The teacher has given out handfuls of jujubes as a way to teach addition and subtraction (“if you have 6 jujubes, and take away 2…”).  But the kids have different ideas – instead of a math lesson, they’d rather build gummy towers, flick the candies at each other across the table, or eat them and run around from the sugar high.  There’s 25 students, and only one teacher. Do you let the kids do what they want?

The obvious answer is no. The kids will run around like crazy and pelt jujubes at each other! They’ll pass out from the sugar high!  They won’t learn any addition or subtraction, which will prevent them from learning multiplication and division and… and… then they’ll never go to college and get a job!  Why don’t kids get to run their own schools?  Because they don’t know what’s good for them.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: there are over 300 million people in the United States. About 1 in 10 adults own an e-reader and, depending on their device, they get to choose the font style and size of the text they’re reading, rendering a book designer useless.  In the classroom, this amounts to handing the kids a bunch of jujubes and saying, “You don’t need someone to tell you how to do math, just go do whatever you want!”  Is it design democracy, or design anarchy?

At this point, you may be saying, Okay, it’s not fair to compare the American population to a bunch of first graders. But of those 300 million people, less than 1 in 1,000 adults are graphic designers. The vast majority, even those who are visual, are typography-illiterate.  And any designer who has had to explain what they do to folks back home can back me up on this.

So why even bother with the design of a book? Let’s face it, you can read the book no matter what — why not give the people what they want?  Well, great design equals great readability. People like me spend time making sure words flow easily from line to line, page to page, highlighting and minimizing what’s important and unnecessary. All so that you don’t notice the design – it’s as beautiful and transparent as glass.

More than that, design gives flavor and tone to the story, making every book a unique experience to enjoy. In e-readers, you only get a few different fonts, so that every book you read is the same, with the personality of, well, a Kindle.  In searching for choice, readers actually get homogeny.

I believe that people are more adept at recognizing great design than they know. That for the most part, they want a pleasant, well-designed reading experience. They may not know what they want, but they know when its bad.

I’m writing all this because Steve Matteson, the type director for Monotype Imaging, did a presentation at work the other day.  He’s on the forefront of this new frontier, and works with Monotype to create and fine-tune typefaces, in a process called “hinting”, so that they’re better for display on screens than in print.  It’s not all settled yet, but it’s fascinating stuff.

E-reader type design a slow process, but one day we’ll get the choice of thousands of clear and elegant fonts. The industry will set standards, and eventually, control of the book will go back to the teacher… I mean, designer.  In the meantime, as it was with computers and the internet, we’re stuck with a whole lot of ugly.  Or is it democracy?

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3 responses to “E-Readers: Design Democracy or Design Anarchy?

  1. Interesting post. True, people know when something is bad… but they mostly don’t know how to get things to look good when it comes to design when they’re not trained in it. So what to do?

  2. I have a Kindle, and I need my Kindle. But people definitely know when it’s bad, even when they don’t know that they know. Saying that there’s no difference between reading a designed book and reading on a Kindle is like saying there’s no difference between listening to a great audiobook and listening to the same book with an e-reader’s wonky robot speech. The words are the same, and practically, you can understand the content either way–but only one is going to do the story justice. Are you going to listen to Jim Dale read Harry Potter, or are you going to listen to robo-reader bleet Huh-mee-own-ee for 9 hours? Exactly.

  3. Great book design makes everyone involved look better… the author seems smarter, the publisher much snazzier, and the reader must have excellent taste to have purchased that book. Seriously, there are plenty of books and web sites that repel potential readers due to their chaotic, ugly, or otherwise difficult design and who needs that? It would be great if e-readers would offer an option to use the designer’s choice of fonts and size, sort of like a director’s cut of a film. My other theory as a picture book author/illustrator is to make the type part of the image so it can’t be changed. : )

    BTW, if you’re interested in a group blog by authors who are writing about ebooks and story apps, please check out http://www.eisforbook.com.

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