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Dissolving that Print Mentality

The shift from print to digital involves many elements, but the use of images is one of the very first that we can use to identify when people start to think as digital natives.

Written by on July 25, 2012

One of the greatest obstacles faced by people who come from a world of print, whether it is graphic designers in marketing or people from the newspaper and magazine world, is how they believe that the limitations of print is an advantage.

Everyone who has ever worked with web design remembers the countless discussions they had with print people about how much easier it would be to have a fixed layout over the fluid dynamically changing nature of the web.

In print, you are used to first defining your format. You create a fixed barrier that never changes - and that is somehow believed to make it better. The problem, of course, is that you are limiting your output to the format. Or in other words, because of the limitations of the nondynamic nature of print, you are putting the format first and the content second.

This leads to content separation where what's on the page is not as important as the page itself. And we see this clearly with the use of images. In print, an image is rarely an integrated part of a story. Instead it's often used as an accessory that you use as a graphic element to make it prettier. You can often remove the picture and the remaining text still makes sense.

I'm reminded by a book I read back in 1999, called the "Inmates are Running the Asylum", by Alan Cooper. It talks about the dancing bear compared to the difficulties of taking things to the next step.

In spite of its weak and clumsy design, it is still a wonderful thing. It's like the fellow who leads a huge bear on a chain into the town square and, for a small donation, will make the bear dance. The townspeople gather to see the wondrous sight as the massive, lumbering beast shambles and shuffles from paw to paw. The bear is really a terrible dancer, and the wonder isn't that the bear dances well but that the bear dances at all.
If you are stranded on a deserted island, you don't care much that your rescue ship is a leaky, rat-infested hulk. The difference between having a solution for your problem and not having any solution is so great that we accept any hardship or difficulty that the solution might force on us.
The difficulty of devising a better interaction isn't what makes the problem so intractable. Instead, it is our almost universal willingness to accept bad interaction as an unavoidable cost. When we see that rusty rescue ship, we don't question its accommodations but just jump on and are glad for what we get.

A dancing bear is amazing, but the problem is that after a while, you become complacent and you start to defend its many shortcomings. You become an apologist.

To paraphrase:

An apologist take pains to justify their obeisance to the dancing bear. They tout the benefits while downplaying the disadvantages with unabashed partisanship, and their vested interest makes their motivation obvious.
The apologists are the ones who defend the old because it can accomplish a task that was heretofore impossibly difficult. They point to the bear and exclaim, 'Look, it's dancing!'

This is what's happened to print. Print is just like a dancing bear. When it was invented it was amazing, and it help us change the world in more ways that most can imagine. Print was a wonderful thing.

But with print you also have a high distribution costs, a slow and complicated production flow, limited formatting options, it's static, non-updatable, non-connectable, and something that is completely passive.

Print is just a dancing bear.

But because print has been around for a long time, unchanged, most of the traditional media industry has turned into apologists. For the past 500 years, making bears dance was the only thing we could do.

They say, "Just look at it. Look how amazing it is. Look how beautiful we have made it perform. Why should we abandon it? Surely there is still a future for dancing bears? Right!"

And, it's not just people within the traditional media industry that thinks like this, the public thinks it too. They too have been looking and subscribing to print for the past 500 years, and they love it (well, they used to anyway).

But it is still a dancing bear. It's still a static, non-updatable, costly, limited, and passive product. We are dealing with a world of apologists. People who take pains to justify their obeisance to the dancing bear.

Then the digital world came along, and it didn't have any of the limitations of the past. The distribution cost is almost zero. The production flow is almost 100% automatic (and direct). You can have any format you like, in any dimension. It's dynamic, real-time updatable, fully connected, and it's an active and social format.

But because we live in a world of apologists, most media companies try to create something that doesn't seem too scary to all the old people who are used to dancing bears ...and they present you with this: A dancing robot (metaphorically speaking).

  • Apple's newsstand is a dancing robot. It does exactly the same as a dancing bear. It's just digital.
  • Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite is another dancing robot that also tries to mimic a dancing bear.
  • Every ebook is a dancing bear, because it too tries to create a digital book that exactly mimics the ones we have always used in print.
  • Flipboard, a product I love, is another dancing bear, because it gives publishers a way to partner with them to get a print layout.
  • Next Issue is a dancing bear, because it takes the old distribution model via newsstands and puts them online in a digital context. Just like print.

We are not moving forward. We are staying with the status quo. We are trying to make our new dancing robots perform just like our good old dancing bears - complete with their many limitations.

The new world is not limited to a dancing bear, so stop making dancing robots that mimic the world of yesterday?

The picture and the content

I want to get back to my earlier point about pictures vs content.

The shift from print to digital involves many elements, but the use of images is one of the very first that we can use to identify when people start to think as digital natives.

Let me illustrate this in a very simple way. In digital, a story can be made up by all kinds of elements: Text, images, videos, graphics, illustrations, animations, infographics and many more. But what set you apart is how you use them.

If you have a print mentality, each one is separated from the others, while a digital mentality combines them into one coherent story. It's the difference between format first, content second, and story first, other things second.

A simple example is just to look at an article. A digital article combines text, images and videos into one single story. Each element flows and support the story as you work your way through it. But a print article cannot mix elements, because it is defined by its format. Just copy/pasting a digital article to a print format, causes the article to break apart and create gaps that interrupt the reading experience.

You see this, for instance, with all ebooks that also contains images. Because the text size in ebooks is user-customizable, the page breaks in places where you don't want it to break.

In print, the way you fix this is by separating your elements. You accessorize the pictures and videos, and put them into a side bar, or if done on an iPad, into a 'gallery'.

But by doing so, the story is no longer a multi-element experience. Now the article itself (the text) has to work as if there are no images at all. You can literally remove the images, and it would still work.

Print people see this as an advantage (the dancing bear), but in reality, it is caused by the limitation of the format itself. You are confining yourself to a world where you cannot mix your media elements to tell a better story.

That's not an advantage.

And we see this limitation being put into place when media companies go online. Instead of removing the limitations of print, they incorporate them into their digital products.

Here, for instance, is the Los Angeles Times's website. See how the images and the text of the article are separated from each other? The journalist who wrote the article did not incorporate the images into the article itself. Instead the images become an accessory ...an extra.

And remember how I said Flipboard was a dancing bear too? Flipboard itself is a great digital app, and I absolutely love it. But their business model is to partner with traditional media companies ...and what do they offer? Yep, a format-first, print centric template.

There was a great article over at CNET about the problems with email clients on Android devices. It looks great on the web. Just look at this screenshot from my iPad ...that's a great looking site:

When you read the article, the pictures support and enhances the reader's understanding of the story.

Isn't this wonderful? The article, the pictures, the sidebar with related content. It just flows!

But then CNET has partnered with Flipboard, and in return they can now create articles that look more like a 'real print magazine' with columns, etc. And the result is this:

First, you get a page with three columns, where the picture is just a small thumbnail to one side. Then when you read on and reach the second page (which you now have to flip to like a printed magazine), the image is no longer part of the article.

The website is story first, and this causes the images to be an integrated part of telling the story itself.

But the Flipboard magazine look is format first, and, as a result, the images have been reduced to thumbnails that merely 'shines up the look' rather than being a part of the telling the story.

This is what happens when you confine your digital product to a print format. It's just another dancing bear, confined by the limitations of the past. It's not an advantage. It's not cool. It's not even visually impressive, because the website does a much better job at presenting not only the article itself, but also all the other things CNET does.

Why are they limiting themselves to a print format in a connected world?

The first challenge is to get rid of the dancing bear

Whenever a media company contacts me about what they should do to embrace the connected world, the first thing I always look at is what they do today. If their product is format-first, content second, with pictures being separated from the articles, I know that I'm heading into a world of pain.

I know that I cannot just tell them what they need to do next, because I'm dealing with a media company full of apologists. They are still impressed by the dancing bear. They still believe that the limitations of print is a visual advantage that makes their product better.

Without getting rid if the dancing bear, there is no way that we can move forward. I first need to convince them that the print model is actually whats keeping them back. Many of these publishers think that the Flipboard 'partner' model is better than the non-partnering direct to website model. It's not.

You are reintroducing all the limitations of the past. And instead of getting a truly remarkable, connected, dynamic, updatable product. You are just creating a dancing robot that is just as limited as the one you have with print.

Free yourself from the limitations of the past. Free yourself from the old visual model that forces you to disconnect your images and videos from your story.

Take a look at this article. The images are essential to the story. You cannot remove any of them because they are a part of total. It's like taking apple pie and removing the apples.

And, of course, the examples in this article are just the simple ones. The same principle applies to all forms of publishing. Digital natives don't think about text, videos and images as separate things, because in their world, they are all part of the same story.

If you want to embrace digital, the very first step is to stop separating and siloing your content.

I'm going to end with this video about the graphic department within the New York Times. They do an amazing job, but it also tells the story of a department siloed from the rest of the organization. The work they do here, while part of the same story, is a separate element from the work done by the journalist.

When your organization works like this, you end up with a template based output (format first), where, for instance, you have an image or graphic box at the top, followed by an article underneath.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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