Learning to Read Online

Learning to Read Online LESLIE.jpgBy Jeremy Leslie

I remember the first time I hooked up a 56bit modem to the phone jack and wondered at the digital type that appeared on my Apple Classic screen. Yes it was amazing, eerie even, seeing content-- newsgroup lists--dropping onto the screen as the modem whined away. But what did this mean for editorial design?

Since then--the early nineties, in case you weren't there--lots has happened but people are still asking the same question. It's only in the last few years that we've begun to get anywhere near an answer (or answers). There were the Flash years--I worked on an exciting but almost unworkable digital magazine for mobile network Orange in the UK that relied on Flash animation--and then the PDF page-turner years. The iPad briefly promised the earth, and though it's established a role for some projects hasn't lived up to the hype.

Just a couple of years ago I remember despairing at the thought content would be consumed on phones. How could we designers possibly create identity within such limited space? But now at last we are seeing progress as screen resolutions improve and mobile reading take off. Responsive web design and web fonts have combined to open the floodgates; long-form writing can be designed to work well on the desktop and tablet and adapt to smaller mobile screens.

I've been working with startup online publishing project Aeon since 2012, in the course of which I've researched many web publishing projects. These are the nearest things yet to "digital magazines," using images and typography to launch stories before resolving to carefully designed, legible layouts that use graphic devices for navigation and pacing. The most enjoyable thing about the form is that it can be adjusted and developed in real time; the Aeon site continues to be tweaked and is about to receive a more major design update.

It's hard to zero in on a single project for this final post; instead I'll highlight several very different design approaches to content, showing how the digital magazine can vary more than you'd imagine (note I'm concentrating exclusively here on projects that haven't grown out of print publications).

02 Aeon essay.jpgMobiles1.jpgFirst up, take a look at Aeon, for the strength of the writing as much as anything. The design focus here is on providing a clear taxonomy of the seven categories of content, with images, headlines and sells for each story and video providing easy access. Once you're "in" one of the essays the emphasis is on the reading experience, with subtle branding for those readers who've bypassed the landing page. Check in again in a week or so to check the next round of design developments.
03 Grafik home.jpg04 Grafik story.jpgAfter its closure a few year back, design magazine Grafik has recently been resurrected as a web-only project. It presents stories as a college of bold headlines, the typography referring to that of its old print iteration. Rollover the headlines and images appear, adding a dynamic touch. Click through for easily read content with plenty of embedded images. Note also the "Short, Medium, Long" article filter at top of page; and also the way the mobile version is simplified.

05 unmapped_home.jpg06 Unmapped story.jpgBoth these projects offer free access; Unmapped is a travel magazine that gives the reader two free articles a month before charging £2 a month. Their presentation is a bolder parallax approach, combining text and image from their far-flung correspondents.
07 Calvert home.jpg08 Calvert story.jpgMobiles2.jpgLastly, The Calvert Journal is a magazine about Russian art and culture. Here the homepage is the star, offering a similar range of stories to Aeon but with a more overtly designed set of options for each one. Deep inside the site there are parallax-style elements that make clear reference to indie print mags: centered, white out bold serif headlines over images.
All these work well on desktop, tablet and phone; the big question remains, how to sell access, something only Unmapped is exploring at present.

The Calvert Journal
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