Behind the scenes with Editions designer David Robinson

Behind the scenes with Editions designer David Robinson Editions Icon.pngEditions, the highly anticipated magazine App produced by AOL, Mobile has just hit the App store boasting the tag line "The Magazine that Reads You". It's the first digital magazine I know of that integrates tagging of a user's interests and maps content to those choices offering up a unique personalized magazine every day. Recently I got to sit down with David Robinson, Head of UX & Mobile Design for AOL to ask him a few questions about the process from a designers point of view.

There are bound to be comparisons to Flipboard and maybe Pulse so let's just get that out of the way. What makes Editions different?

Flipboard and Pulse are great apps, I use them both a lot but Editions is not either of those, nor is it like The Daily and others that have writers and editors creating original content. Those apps are looking at your twitter and Facebook feeds or have staff in a news room producing content, Editions looks all over the web and finds content that matches your interests and creates a daily magazine for you. Remember when the morning the paper and a cup of coffee represented a little "me-time"? This is for that, it's not the fire hose.

You're well versed in digital design from web to apps, when you first heard about this project what did you think you were getting into, were you ever a magazine designer?

I did some layout back in the olden days at an agency where I got my start but I've never laid out a magazine from front to back before and this isn't an apples to apples comparison. When we first started Editions the idea wasn't fully flushed but it already sounded like a difficult design problem. Turns out, grabbing content from around the web and dynamically flowing it into spaces and laying out pages on the fly isn't easy. Even more difficult is the nuance of how the app gets informed about what interests you and how that feedback is given back to the user when they receive their next Edition.

Were there any magazines, digital or print, that you looked to for inspiration while working on Editions?

Sure, Juxtapose, Wired, Oprah, W... this list is endless.

Editions delivers a custom cover every day that includes a personalized address label that is just plain old fun! How much did design drive the birth of this idea?

This was a design idea and we agree, it's fun!

There is always give and take between engineering, design and product teams when bringing a product like this to market. What are the big wins and losses from a design perspective in this app?

Well, the big compromise came in the form of layouts, where we ended up in version one of this app is really great but ti's not where we started. When we started designing layouts we really wanted to do a lot of custom work, 10 to 40 layouts with styles to match but it just wasn't realistic. When "the machine" is laying out content into a box and it doesn't know how much content it's going to receive for any given article it's near impossible to pick a template that can start and end with elegance. That's not to say we've given up, we just haven't found the magic formula, yet.

How do you see this platform expanding down the road?

Interesting question and I think you may be the first to ask. Right now Editions is a platform for Editions but beyond our maniacal focus of what we're making today, Editions is very much a platform. I can't go in to what that means here but as far as it's future goes -- I think it's wearing sunglasses.

Editions looks fantastic especially considering these daily issues are assembled in a matter of seconds. That being said, it's not the high design aesthetic of a magazine like GQ or Bloomberg Businessweek. Do you see a day when an app like Editions can create on the fly bespoke design at that level?

With those magazines there's an editorial voice that goes along with the visual voice and language and you can see it change when editors and art directors come and go. We have some of that starting to appear in our algorithm but I'm not sure the machine can replicate that in its entirety. When and/or/if it can I in no way mean any disrespect to the machine.

Making good looking magazines is hard work, do you ever see a time when the process can be, if not automated, placed in the hands of the editor and the art department will be replaced by a user friendly CMS tool?


What kind of grid was utilized in this design? What is the theory behind the font choices and image sizes?

We have covers - that is to say we have THE cover and we have section covers and they share the same grid. The interior has no grids really, they have layouts - 1up, 2up, 3up, 4up, 5up 6up, 7up, 8up. Image sizes are determined by the layouts and effected as appropriate. The fonts we're chosen based on what design wanted and what the platform could handle, I think we've got an app that is a showcase for typography. That said, we've got more work to do.

The section openers have a unique look, half toning the images there feels like a pragmatic design decision, can you explain a bit about that choice?

The section openers we call section covers. The half toning effect happened because we couldn't always pick the best cover with the algorithm. Sometimes the article that we wanted on a section cover was really small and when you blew it up it looked terrible so Davey Reynolds came up with this 1 pixel grid overlay that masked the pixelation on the image and it works very well. Davey's a true artist both in the literal and metaphorical sense and he just couldn't sleep until he solved the problem.

The cover itself is built algorithmically, did you have issues with text covering peoples faces? How did you mitigate that, through some kind of facial recognition software?

Not really. There's some awkward positioning that happens but it's really handled by the treatment under the text and the grid overlay.

Why do you think making a personalized magazine is important? What is it about the format that keeps begging to be replicated? Especially when people can personalize RSS feeds and get recommended content through friends on Twitter and Facebook?

There's something that happens when you drink from the fire hose all day, after a while it doesn't taste so good. We're all busy at work, at home and in between we're all furiously checking our iPhone and Android phones wondering what's happening, what we're missing, what our friends are saying. It's very rare that we get a quiet moment to ourselves to have a coffee and read something that interests ME from start to finish. These other activities, they never end.

Magazine designers take their craft very seriously, I'm sure there are a few reading this that may see Editions as an early AI threat to their craft, do you guys feel Editions is a threat to traditional magazines or simply a new addition to the old game of content distribution?

No. Editions doesn't farm content, it drives people to it. I know it's easy to see that with a skeptical eye but it's real. If you're a "source" and someone sees your content in Editions they don't see any more (and maybe less) content than you've made available, you have to open the article to read it from it's native source. Page view impressions all stay with the publisher. The more controversial thing I'll say about design and the magazine industry is that a great design in print doesn't translate to a great tablet design, period. You've got to get more creative and think about what it means to design for the new medium and not just translate your best guess to it. Design needs to lead in this arena and edit needs to learn. I'm stepping off my soapbox now.

It's impressive how customizable this app is and how fast it can download and assembles a unique issue just for you with a beginning and an end. Who decided how long the section page counts would be and how did you arrive at that decision to actually have an end.

It is pretty cool! We made it a point to design an experience that could be, in theory, finished in a single sitting. It's psychology at it's core, people feel good about finishing a project, an errand, a movie or a good read.

How does the algorithm know not to put a small image into a big frame?

Smarter people than me figured that one out. Jacob Knobel, Ethan Nagel plus the development team have some magic under the hood that figures that stuff out. I could tell you but then, you'd have to kill me -- or they would.

What's the hardest issue from a Design perspective working on a long term (10 months) project as massive and complex as this?

Eye of the tiger, baby. Eye Of The Tiger .


  • David Robinson

    Thanks for the ink SPD!

    I'd like to add that Davy Reynolds was a real driver for this look and feel of this and if it weren't for Ruby Anaya no one would be able to use the thing. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Aaron Martin helped shine it up while Will Lipman helped move all the parts into the hands of the mighty developers. Go team!

  • Josh Klenert

    Love the address label & bar code on the cover. Cute ways to add in the flavor and personality of a magazine.

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