Who will design the new digital reading experience?

In this chapter, we will focus on the qualities and skills required to design the content for the new digital reading experience.

Designing Complex Content.

“Editorial design focuses on the function of communicating an idea or story through targeted, combined use of images and words that organize and present the information, transforming it into comprehension.”

Francesco Franchi, Designing News, Gestalten, 2013.

Professional book designers are, in some way, visual editors. They can process lengthy and complicated information to a clear, readable presentation. Whether the content is textual academic researches or image-based art albums, it is the book designer’s challenge to guide people to experience it respectively.

In that sense, designing for a digital platform would not change much of the book designer’s work. From our conversations with working designers and design students, the challenge seems to appear in two main objectives: making the content “work” and the technical tools to do so.

Designing a User Experience.
While nowadays mainly related to web and apps design, composing a person’s experience with objects and space is in the heart of every design discipline. The official “user experience” term (shorten to UX), as coined by Donald Norman, combines 2 essential concepts: “user” is the one you are designing for, “experience” is the functional feeling he/she/they will go through with your design.

The word ‘user’ is significant. In compare to reading, which is a passive act asking the readers to simply flip a paper with two fingers while scanning it with their eyes, the new digital reading experience can present a more dynamic behaviour with the content. Scrolling pages, sliding through multiple images, pressing play, clicking for links, bookmarking, noting and more possible features are changing the reader’s interaction with the content into using the forms it is presented through. Understanding these possibilities is key for the content designers of the new digital reading experience.

The experience can be described as: how does it work? Or: what do I do with it? Printed books have a very natural method of “working”: you know where to begin and go along by flipping one page after the other, until the last one. The digital container does not necessarily have a clear beginning and end and can be experienced in many ways, following its design. Once alone with the content on their own device, the readers must be able to find their way through. This will require the designer to test not only the visualisation of the content but people’s behaviour with it.

“In digital, you have the architecture of information to investigate. And that is interesting. It can inspire me in new ways.”

Irma Boom to Eye Magazine, 2014

Since the experience is not a given anymore, we would like to introduce existing book designers with informational architecture methods. These methods include knowing all the content, breaking it down to smaller pieces, mapping it and organising the relations between all parts. We would explore more IA methods(*) in the following phase and present them in the designing for the digital reading experience guide.

Code or No Code.
Book designers’ primary tool today for word processing, graphic layout, and preparing for production (print) is Adobe’s Indesign software. Indesign plugins for creating digital content exist in the market for several years now, and some designers are developing their own for individual projects. Also, there are few online software developed for creating digital content for HTML outputs. Such software is designed with a very Indesign-oriented workspace.

In the following phase, we would like to test those options together with book designers who wish to design content for the digital reading experience. We would use these tests for recommendations in the guide for creating the digital reading experience.

Alongside the book designers, the graphic design discipline has qualified many designers in the past decade who have turned to the field of web design. Some of those designers have a broader knowledge of working in a programming-oriented environment and will be able to use their skills to create their own versions for a digital story. For those designers, the challenge might be in the typographic field, moving from a short-texts environment to a highly extended one. With those designers, we would focus on tests ensuring that the content-container doesn’t only “work”, but is keeping readability in the best form.


“There are always technological limitations, and designers try to catch up with and work around them. A lot of design is inspired by these limitations. If you ask young people now, they don’t perceive the limits of technology.”

Peter Bil’ak, editorial and type designer at Typoteque, Interview March 2019

In 2007, our graduation year from the KABK, you were either a paper or a screen person. A combination was rare. Even though we all learned HTML, CSS and the early stages of XML, for your career you would probably have to make a choice: do you design for print, or do you design for the web? Scholarships were in an almost total division: the romantic paper adorers or the pragmatic code admirers. Looking at what is needed for the digital reading experience design – this separation might prove to be fatal.

Talking to graphic design students, we realized the previous generation’s resistance to the combi seems to be dissolving to a future of coding-familiar, digital-friendly designers with high typographic education.

“We have to provide better experiences to the user. That’s what it comes down to right now. I think everybody realizes that now more and more – we have to deliver experiences. We can not continue this PDF duplicate until 2156.”

Achille Coenengracht, Director Partnerships and Business Development at Rakuten/Aquafadas, Interview March 2019

The e-books presented book designers with few new digital challenges, while the main ingredients of book design remained print-oriented. The choice of layout in general and margins, in particular, were based on print size. The choice of font and text spacing were considering paper reading. The cover remained a static image and content pages are still many times unlinkable. Designing to the “digital” e-reading output is taking too little part in thinking of a complete digital reading experience.

To maximize the potential of the digital reading platform, designers aspiring to create a fluent, enriched digital reading experience will need to have more knowledge of two disciplines. They will need the vocabulary of basic coding languages as well as understanding kerning, typeface and white space.

To create more understanding between disciplines, we would like to clarify a vocabulary who would give all participants a basic knowledge in each other’s wor(l)ds. In our planning for the guide to designing the new digital reading experience, we would include a mini-dictionary, explaining relevant terminology and 3-letters acronyms to enable a fluent productive discussion between all sides.

Hybrid Designers.
We visualise the new digital reading experience as a crossing of design skills. On the one hand, excellent typographic skills and the ability to design long texts in a beautiful, readable fashion. On the other, a great understanding of digital platforms, flexible layouts and functionality.

In the next phase of our research, we will create workshops and competitions for designers. In those gatherings, designers will be presented with practical challenges of designing for the digital reading experience and could bring their own interpretations and skills to given content.

next article: Creating a Content-Container