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Interview with Lars Bohm, former student of the MediaLAB Amsterdam

Lars Böhm is one of the students of the MediaLAB of HvA who were involved since the beginning of 2012 in the project called “The Future of Publishing”. In this interview he will tell about his experience with digital magazine.

This interview was made on November the 27th in the HvA building in Rhijnspoorplein in Amsterdam.

Institute of Network Cultures: Can you make a small presentation about yourself? What kind of projects have you done during your work experience and during your studies? In which ways are you involved in publishing and how did you first develop an interest in it?

Lars: In my most recent project, ‘The Future of Publishing’, myself and a team of other people, at the MediaLAB of HvA Amsterdam, developed a digital magazine called ‘Uncovered’. Uncovered was designed to enable journalism masters students at the University of Amsterdam to publish long form journalistic articles on tablet computers.

Prior to this, I completed a 6 month internship at Filosofie Magazine, where I managed the magazine’s digital platform, social media, website etc. whilst also researching and writing short articles for the print magazine.
However, most of my previous projects involved designing and creating applications. During my degree, I focused specifically on designing applications for mobile devices and producing prototypes but MediaLAB finally gave me the opportunity to turn my ideas into a working product.

I’ve always loved books and magazines, but I didn’t come in contact with the publishing industry until my internship at Filosofie Magazine. Before that, I took a minor in Practical Philosophy because I wanted to explore this subject in more depth.
During my time at Filosofie Magazine I became intrigued by how rapidly the publishing industry was changing The company was struggling with the question of how to keep up with digital ways of publishing. So naturally I spent a lot of time thinking about that question: what is the role of a publisher in the new and expanding digital environment?

The Future of Publishing presents Uncovered from iNewsFormats on Vimeo.

INC: What is the main difference between a book and an e-book? What about other digital editorial products? What about calling them all “reading experiences”?

L: Although I mainly specialize in digital magazines, I can talk a bit about books and e-books. I think mostly that the reading experience between print books and e-books is very different, but it also depends a lot on the medium we use to read the e-book.
E-books can be read with e-readers, tablet computers, smartphones and even regular computers. The reading experience on an e-reader is more similar to that of a print book, whereas other digital reading options alter the reading experience drastically: for example, tablet computers offer more distractions; and smartphones make reading an e-book less comfortable because of the size of the screen. Reading an e-book on a regular computer or laptop however, changes the user experience most of all, not only do they offer multiple distractions, they also change the reading environment.

Furthermore, I think there are many other differences between books and e-books: from my experience in digital magazines, I can say that the biggest change from print to digital is the space you have in the book, because if you are laying out a magazine or a book onto paper, you have to take into account the length of texts, and the amount of images, and obviously you can’t put the interactivity of a video in it, while with the digital you can.

There is also another main difference, which causes some threads too: with the digital, people usually overload the information. For instance, putting too much text into an editorial product – because you can and also because you are not constrained to editing anything out – or too many videos, too many applications and too much interactivity in general can distract and confuse the reader. But that’s not really the case with e-books in this current stage, because they are now mostly a facsimile interpretation of the traditional printed releases of books.

At the end, with e-books I think the reading experience obviously changes, but I don’t think it changes so much, it just makes it easier for you to carry many books at the same time, but if you look at the stage of e-readers now, they just mimic the paper in a very realistic way. Otherwise, I think the main disadvantage of e-books is that you can’t share them with friends for free. If you say to a friend “This one it’s a good book, you have to read it”, you can’t simply hand it to him, he has to buy it himself.

I read a lot of books and what I like is that I have a big book case at home and frequently I go over all my books, pick one of them out randomly and I browse through it. The feeling I have with e-books is that you store all of them on the device and you never look back on them because you don’t encounter them in daily life, at least, not in the same way as you are surrounded by print books.

INC: What are the parameters, limits and rules in the design (or programming) process for the digital book? How do they differ from the ones of the paper book? Can you make some examples?

L: When publishing an e-book you have to take into account the compatibility with as many different types of devices as possible. It would be a terrible user experience if a customer were to purchase an e-book and then wouldn’t be able to open it, it’s the equivalent of buying a book in a language you don’t know. When creating a custom application for a digital book the cost is very high and the book is usually only available on a single platform (e.g. the iPad’s iOS or Google’s Android.)
Sticking to an easily readable file format drastically alters the design process: there is relatively little left to customize, that is my experience of digital magazines.

My thesis researches the usability of digital magazines in tablet computers. One of the disadvantages of digital magazines is that, in their current state, they are too experimental – publishers are obsessed with interactivity and making e-books stand out from print instead of trying to find a middle way between print magazines and web sites. So what you get is an overload of distractions. They try to put all these new features that the medium-tablet offers and this has the only effect of confusing the reader, because people still interpret the application as a print magazine and if you mix it up like a web site, the reader is going to loose focus, for example, too many hyperlinks can pull the reader away from the article. So I think we need now to refresh digital magazines, now the concept is no longer new, we need to find a balance between the interactivity of the digital and the original structure of the print magazine.

A further downside with digital magazines is that, the digital publishing industry is heavily linked with media monopolies (media giants) – a digital magazine designed for the iPad for example, would limit options, scope and accessibility of the new digital media environment and audience rather than creating new ones. One of the main publishing tools now is Woodwing.
If you download some digital magazines from an application store then you can easily point out which ones are made with Woodwing, so it gives digital magazines a unique aspect, but  it is also creating a standard, which I think is a good thing at present.

INC: So, how does the proliferation of different formats (ePub, PDF, iPad etc.) can affect the design of an editorial product? How can we deal with this problem of different formats? Can you make some examples?

L: ePub offers maximum compatibility, it’s easily readable and compatible with many devices but it offers very few options for customization or interactivity.

PDF formats are usually static pages, they are compatible with a large number of devices, but the reading experience is sub-optimal.

Alternatively, iPad books take a lot of time and money to create, they offer a larger range of possibilities in terms of customization and interactivity but they are limited to the iPad, and cannot be accessed throughe-readers and other devices. The current demand for the iPad could be because it is the main tablet in the market right now. A further problem with the development of Android devices is that although Apple is the sole producer of iPads, Androids are made by many different companies and the screen sizes are very different. So when you develop something with a static layout it becomes very difficult to transfer the same application to the various models available.

These difficulties are largely a concern for starter publishers as bigger publishers can afford to develop a custom iPad application. Even for bigger publishers, however, customised iPad magazines or books remain very expensive and it is doubtful whether the profits can outweigh the initial investment. At present there isn’t an ideal solution to the cost of iPad applications for starter publishers.

INC: The relationship between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has it changed in the digital environment?

L: As I have already stated, in my opinion the main difference between digital and print is space: when publishing on a digital medium the available space is practically limitless.
Printed books become more expensive to produce once more content is introduced, especially when dealing with images. So in the print publishing process hard choices have to be made in the editing of the final product, what to keep and what not to keep. In digital publishing an author can implement as many images as he wants. But this presents the added danger of less relevant content being published.
In my experience, the amount of images in e-books is still very limited, while the amount of images in digital magazines has increased a lot. In digital magazines there are ‘image galleries’ providing access to multiple images, whereas in an original print version there would have been only a single image. The overuse of image galleries may obscure the actual text if it distracts the reader from the page.

INC: What about the relationship between content and structure in the laying out of an editorial product (indexes, hyperlinks, different ways of visualization etc.)?

L: Digital books and magazines become easier to navigate when users can open the table of contents onto the same page they are reading at any moment.
It also becomes much easier for the user to find a single line of text throughout the book for citing quotations or specific research.
Hyperlinks provide a valuable context for the text that the user is reading, but also are also a potential distraction from the main text. Whether hyperlinks can or cannot be used depends on the nature of the text.
However, it is important to be cautious when using these elements to reshape the relationship between content and structure because they can alter the linearity of a magazine or a book, since you can skip through articles like you would on websites.
Overall, I think that in the design of books or magazines there shouldn’t be too many changes in the structure when compared to a printed version because this usually confuses the user.

INC: Can you make some examples? What do you think are the main examples of digital magazines and which do you like the most?

L: I subscribe to Wired. As an example of digital magazines, I like Wired a lot.
Most of the people we interviewed as tablet users for The Future of Publishing project had a subscription on Wired and they were all really positive about it, so I think is one of the main examples in tablet publishing. The one downside with Wired however, is that it tasks the user with too much interactivity: I don’t think I have ever finished reading a single magazine. It has too much content on every page and there are too many options between switching to the next article and flip through; it’s no longer linearand you have a lot of trouble reaching the articles at the end.

INC: Can you tell me about Uncovered magazine?

L: Uncovered started out as one of The Future of Publishing projects at the MediaLAB. For 6 months we researched, designed and created a digital publishing platform with the purpose of publishing a custom magazine for tablet computers.
The platform is currently compatible with the iPad and it also is very compatibile with certain Android devices. But the functionality on Android has been later disabled because it may not run well on other Android devices and that could be damaging for the user experience.

We designed Uncovered as a publishing platform for long-form journalism. We decided to choose a very minimal interface style and also to limit the interactivity in the publishing progress. After a lot of time spent on desk research and user testing, we found that interactivity shouldbe used sparsely, so as not to distract the user from the main text. In our team we didn’t really have specific roles, but given my background I mainly focused on interaction design and user testing, although my favourite part of the project was the research.


Lars Böhm – Uncovered magazine from network cultures on Vimeo.

In this video: Lars Böhm talks about Uncovered, a digital magazine made by himself and a team of other people for ‘The Future of Publishing’ project at the MediaLAB of HvA, Amsterdam. Uncovered was designed to enable journalism masters students at the University of Amsterdam to publish long form journalistic articles on tablet computers.

INC: Now it comes to some questions I would like you to ask about education in publishing, looking at your personal experiences:
What could be the meaning of a publishing class in the age of self publishing and DIY practices?

L: To learn how to introduce an expert opinion on the content of a text, but also on the selection process. A publisher has to be skilled in how to ensure that what is published is of quality and without errors in fact.

INC: What do you think could be the main principles and guidelines for teaching in the publishing field?

L: I would say the most valuable skills for a publisher are to have the ability to find and recognize valuable content and also the ability to work together with authors and make the final product a better one. So this could be a good basic principle to take into account when teaching a publishing class.

INC: What is the state of the art in the publishing education filed? How can teaching practice move with the times changing so fast in terms of new media, new technologies and new behaviours?

L: I think teachers should look at how students are educating themselves. The web is full of interesting distractions for any person who wants to learn. In the classroom being distracted by media is seen as a bad thing. Instead, students should be encouraged to use media to do related research and develop their own ideas.