The Case for Responsive Design in Digital Magazines
First off, I must confess I'm a huge fan of Wired's iPad app. They have become absolute artists when it comes to adding value to their content through the use of media and interactivity. The industry owes them a debt of gratitude for getting out front and navigating these uncharted waters. Similarly, we should all feel indebted to the New York Times for being out front on paywalls and the return of long form journalism.
Every publisher wants their brand to shine in this brave new world of the digital magazine and some are diving in head first after seeing the possibilities Wired and other consumer brands have presented. Even the tools are a natural fit; your production staff has been using them to produce their print edition for years.
Here's the problem - this isn't the print world.
If printers told publishers they were going to use many different sizes of paper to produce their editions, the tools for creating editions would have evolved differently. That's the world we're living in now; there's an ever-increasing number of screen sizes entering the market and publishers need to make some hard choices:
- Scale your staff to design editions for each and every screen size
- Only produce editions that work on one or two screen sizes
- Adopt a different workflow for your digital content
Most publishers we've talked to note that it takes them ~80 additional hours to produce the (large) tablet version of their magazine in a print-style workflow. The question publishers need to ask themselves is is it worth the investment to retain the pixel-perfect control over layout my production staff is used to? Here's where I think a lot of publishers could stand to take a page from the world of web design. Responsive design is hot for a reason - it gives readers a great result on all their screens and let's face it, readers have the advantage. There's more content being created than ever before, every publisher should be bending over backwards to ensure their readers have access to their content anywhere they choose to consume it.
We've all heard about the challenges of responsive design on the web. Like all software technologies, it's a work in progress. Over time, the early adopters spend their time finding solutions to an all new set of problems and eventually generate best practices which are used by the rest of the industry. Despite it's youth, developers and designers everywhere (including us) are jumping on board because it gives us the best chance to address the problem (and opportunity) presented by the mobile explosion.
Responsive design can provide the same wins for magazine apps as it does for the web. While readers do expect a richer experience for a magazine app than a website, many titles do not need all the bells and whistles of a large consumer brand. Great content stands on its own. Nothing shows this better than the success of Marco Arment's The Magazine (and the subcompact publishing movement it inspired). It's beautifully simple, works well on small and large screens alike and is intensely focused on the content. The Economist is another great example of an award winning app that puts content first.
The question each publisher needs to ask themselves is which approach is most appropriate for my brand? I suspect that many brands (especially the non-consumer ones) would be better served by a more efficient, content focused workflow that produces great results on all screens. A more efficient workflow means more time to focus on other pressing needs like advertising and monetization.