running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Ergodic Goes Digital

Saturday, 8 November 2014

One of my final year students came to me with an interesting idea for his end-of-year project. He was writing a novel, and wanted to design and self-publish it, both in print and in digital formats. The writing was 'a bit experimental', but he also wanted to explore format itself, and he'd heard me mention ergodic layouts during a class on grids. He was still finding his way around the technology, but understood that self-publishing for devices like the Kindle was pretty straightforward. The challenge was really about experimenting in what is essentially still a new format, with the aim of creating an illustrated digital novel.

Digital publishing is definitely entering a new phase, where consuming and publishing the written word via a screen is easier than ever before. Twitter, new long-form content distributors, and an increase in digital ad spending have encouraged this. Self-publishing is now a desirable option for many writers. For designers however, digital publishing suffers from the same sort of issues that the web was plagued with in the mid 90's.  It's full of complex workflows, interchangeable (but not necessarily complementary) file formats, and an ever-expanding range of devices, resolution sizes and standards.

Of course the web came good in the end. Browser convergence, the arrival of HTML5, and a more print-led sensibility have allowed web design to become much more expressive, driven by a revolution in UI and web typography. Today there are thousands of everyday websites out there that stylistically and visually (as well as technically) would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. So we could be forgiven for thinking that this is where digital publishing should be headed too.

The student project was to be a semi-autobiographical story, influenced by writers like William Burroughs, Alasdair Gray, and Mark Danielewski. I liked the sound of this from a literary perspective, but in terms of design I could see that it might pose a few problems. These writers had all published books that featured experimental typesetting and challenging narrative techniques; Burroughs used cut-ups, foldouts and non-linear editing; Gray and Danielewski had explored unusual typesetting and unconventional page layout (see Janine 1982 and House of Leaves respectively).

Clearly this would be a joy to work with in print, but much more difficult to pull off in digital. When I expressed this concern, the student replied with a quote from David Carson, who famously said, "don't confuse legibility with communication". Now I don't disagree with the statement, and it was revolutionary in 1996, but Carson does feel a bit dated now.  Certainly in terms of digital design and screen media, legibility is the whole basis of the success of the user experience, so it has to be dealt with in an appropriate way.

On the other hand, whilst interactive magazines can be very engaging, eBooks in particular provide a reading experience that feels very passive. What's more, if you are a writer who wants their work to reach the digitally-literate audience, there aren't a lot of options (yet) open to you in terms of the experimental sensibilities that naturally work with handheld devices.

With all this in mind, Ross set about creating an organic, stylistically challenging book blending design ideas such as ergodic layout and handmade typography, with literary devices such as cut-ups, footnotes and illustrated text.  It isn't finished yet, but he received a Merit in his project submission, and here are some samples -

Some large sections of the book, entitled 'Bat Snake Rat' can be found on the author's Behance site here.  His name is Ross Turnbull, and he graduated in 2014.