A book is a lifeless object. Its power lies in its ability to circulate ideas. And although we like to champion its importance, the narrative isn’t a book’s defining quality. If it isn’t shared, a book is just another unknown story.
And yet innovation in digital book design tends to fixate on how to tell a story rather than how to share a story. This is possibly because narratives enhanced by touch screens, algorithms, geo-location triggers and live feeds are an addictive design challenge. But in our enthusiasm to design innovative products, we risk overlooking an entire area of the digital design: innovation in distribution. The way we use tech to tell stories is different to the way we should be using tech to share stories. And this field has yet to be fully exploited.
We buy an app, we read the app. We buy an audio book, we listen to it. We all know how interconnected digital devices are, but I don’t see the same creativity used to combat the linearity of storytelling also transferring into distribution. If we are able to seamlessly jump from text to audio to moving image within a narrative, then what is stopping that narrative from being designed to seamlessly jump from tablet to print to VR and back again?
In The Shadow, an interactive storytelling project about life with OCD that I designed as part of the REACT incubator scheme at The Watershed in Bristol, was designed to emulate the intimacy of print. From its highly personal subject matter to its borderless navigation, it was built to be accessible, immersive, emotive and private. So I was taken aback when we were invited to present the app at a film festival. Conceptually, public screening was counter-intuitive, but technically it was an easy ask. And as it turns out, projecting an iPad onto a 7m surround-sound cinema screen in front of a live audience is equally as immersive an experience as navigating a private tablet in the corner of a room.
The concept that one publication is able to fully engage both public and private audiences is unique. It was also an accident with far reaching implications and the potential to change the way I think about inclusive publishing. If a narrative is designed to be compatible with multiple devices, then the reader can choose which device to use and how to share it with their networks. They will naturally be able to match the medium they use to the environment they are in, thereby creating a far more sophisticated relationship with the content than is currently available. But unlike print, the reader no longer needs to be one person. Creative digital distribution might mean that as well as reaching single readers, a reader could be an audience.
Imagine that you are in a gallery. In one room, tablet-controlled images are projected onto four walls whilst the speakers play a curated soundtrack. In another room, there is an interactive audio archive. In another, a film is screening. Now imagine you can download that same exhibition to your phone as an app in situ. On your way home, you catch-up on the audio you missed; you revisit the interactive room (this time taking the time to read the captions); you share your favourite content through social media. At home, you plug your tablet into your home entertainment system and continue to view the exhibition with your family. Later you click on a link to buy the book. Or a print to frame on your wall.
The exhibition and its app are technically the same publication, but the emphasis of which part of the story is read changes depending on the device through which it is viewed: public or private, home or away. By consciously linking variations of the original, e.g. the book, the app, the website, the social media page, publishers are able to capitalise on readers’ reticence to commit to one medium, whilst simultaneously making it part of the story.
Probably because of the dazzling possibilities of interaction with the narrative, I wonder that we haven’t overlooked considering interface design as being just one of digital publishing’s many design challenges? By looking into innovations in wider spectrums of the reading experience, we can start to transcend our current understanding of it by creating entirely new ways of telling and sharing stories.
Written by Victoria Forrest, Reported by Molly Flatt. Published in The Bookseller