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Dan Hill has seen the publishing industry from all sides. As a writer, he has contributed to a variety of international magazines, blogs, and books – including his own title, the excellent Dark Matter and Trojan Horses for Strelka Press in 2012. During the startup phases of Monocle, Dan worked as web & broadcast director and more recently he has provided design and strategic direction to Domus, helping to bring that influential magazine to the iPad – a process which he documented on his personal blog.
Dan was recently appointed as CEO of Fabrica (moving on from his position as strategic design lead at Helsinki Design Lab) but he continues to write, publish, and provide commentary on the industry. We managed to take a moment out of his busy schedule to get his thoughts on the future of print media, the possibilities presented by new digital devices, and the emerging hybrids between the two.
It’s no secret that this is a difficult time for the publishing industry, but we’re also seeing numerous opportunities emerge from outside traditional models. How do we encourage publishers to be more fearless, less risk averse, and be able to take advantage of (or even create) new opportunities?
Prototyping. It’s actually not fearless in a sense as I believe it’s riskier not to prototype. Without that degree of planning and consideration, publishers will go out of business, pure and simple. It’s the same problem with sustainability more generally – the longer we wait to switch to a low-carbon future, the worse the situation gets and the less likely you are to be able to pull yourself out of it. So I’d encourage prototyping in particular as a self-preservation strategy.
Can digital and print publishing effectively co-exist? Where is the equilibrium if indeed one can be achieved?
I’m not sure there’s any equilibrium, or if that’s possible. Very few systems tend towards equilibrium, and perhaps least of all cultural systems. Stewart Brand’s layers of cultural change diagram has “fashion” and “commerce” moving fastest and most unpredictably, and that’s probably where publishing lives. Culture is deeper and slower, but perhaps refers to patterns of living rather than cultural production. So for a particular title the definition of what is digital and what is print might be moving constantly in flux. Publishers should be exploring both aspects as a unified strategy. There is no longer a justification for a “digital strategy” as a separate aspect to print. Those days should be long gone. In that sense everything is digital and physical. Each aspect has its own qualities, affordances, advantages and disadvantages, and each is in constant development. So no, there is no equilibrium as such, but perhaps a merging.
What needs to happen to ensure different stakeholders are able to work together as a team, with so much uncertainty around where things are headed?
There is lots of analysis kicking around, but no one can predict, with enough accuracy, what one should do. Again, prototyping has to be baked into the culture of publishing more than ever. We should also be working in collaborative, interdisciplinary, if not transdisciplinary, teams. Publishers who don’t understand their medium will not have much to offer, and to understand your medium now means understanding the code, craft, platforms, infrastructure of design, development, distribution and so on. I’d argue good publishers, editors and content creators have always understood this. Now that the medium has broadened to be this physical/digital hybrid, this seems like quite an ask, but the truth is there’s little option. Quality content and design is simply a prerequisite, but for a title to thrive, you need to understand and shape the medium as well as the message. Just as the material offering is a digital/physical hybrid, the strategy behind it needs to be an editorial/platform hybrid.
What are some of the pitfalls of these hybrid publishing models that you’ve observed, and how do you think we can overcome them?
Usually, issues arise when someone has not absorbed the particular characteristics of a new medium, and either unthinkingly or stubbornly forces the characteristics of an old medium into the new. There is certainly something interesting about playing with the tropes of one medium within another. That route opens up enormous creative potential, but we know that missteps and dead-ends occur when someone has resisted the essence of “digital”. A proper understanding of the essence of the medium, particularly those new hybrids, and an iterative approach is the best way forward.
What about new services such as Lulu – how can they be improved?
My main problem with Lulu is in the customer experience of its site and services – the end result is usually pretty good. It’s just a bit fiddly to upload to, to know what you’re going to get, and to then track printing, packaging and distribution etc. They also need more printing bases around the world. Overall it’s a promising service, they just need to improve their user experience online.
What are the aesthetic considerations that designers need to be examining to achieve both beauty and functionality in emerging platforms and devices? Responsive design is still a topic that seems to be driving much of that conversation.
Responsive design is almost entirely aesthetic in the sense that it is the performative aspect or sheen of display. The way it moves across platform without changing the editorial itself. Engineering and mechanics have an inherent aesthetic and a beauty of their own too. Allying beauty and functionality should have always been the goal. There is no point in foregoing one over the other, trading one against the other. There is sometimes a creative tension between them, sure, but their melding into a coherent, compelling whole is a solid ambition. If we think about great product design, the offerings balance functionality and beauty. There might be a different line drawn for different titles, however you really have no choice but to balance both. Multiple platforms are a reality of the contemporary world, and it’s a huge leap forward that they are.
When translating the design of a static magazine to an interactive one, how do you know which conventions to keep and which lose, so that the end product is recognisable but also takes advantage of the unique features of a device or platform?
There are some things to borrow from one medium and deploy in another, but you have to critically assess both the original medium and the new contender. There are things that an iPad edition of a magazine can borrow such as a table of contents, captions, pull quotes, and header hierarchies. But there also things it doesn’t need, as well as things that only digital can achieve. Page length for example need only be dictated by the story itself, not the physical materials. Of course, to go deeper again one might embed social media, or take advantage of geolocation, and so on. And let’s not forget, magazines themselves are still an incredibly fluid idea. We must keep exploring, especially as there will be even more incredible hybrids around the corner, when the so-called “internet of things” really kicks in.
What is your vision for the near future of publishing?
I don’t do visions! My approach is usually to explore what Steven Johnson calls the “adjacent possibles”, which means to move forward from this position and explore the terrain laterally, across all those possible outcomes, following your particular interest and expertise. I think developing an agility and adaptiveness, based on constant learning, is more fruitful. There is much theory out there to back this up too. The scientist Niels Bohr said something along the lines of predictions being really difficult, particularly about the future. So I’m dodging the question, but I’m in good company.
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