June 2014

The Future of the Book

A History of the Future of the Book

Recently movie critic Bob Mondello looked at how films pictured the future and wrote:

“When Hollywood imagines the future, from Logan’s Run to Avatar, it tends to picture living spaces as sterile and characterless, without any cultural clues to the person who lives there. No record library, no DVDs, no Hemingway on bookshelves … often no bookshelves.

And here we are, catching up to that vision of the future. Sales of physical books dropped 30 percent last year, while e-book sales more than doubled…. ”1

blogimage_future-books_ab-2014Books and media once inhabited our shelves and were a visible indicator of who we were, or wanted to be. Now these are becoming invisible bits stored in a computer device, enriching the reader but making our living environments more sterile.

The evolution of books has often been predicted:

– In 1910 the French artist Villemard showed that we would have audio books by the year 2,000. Of course the process he imagined was much simpler than even that of creating an e-book today — just drop the books into a grinder while some poor lad (perhaps a graphic designer?) turns the crank.

– In 1935 microfilm was being shown as the solution for making reading easier. “The April, 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics included this nifty invention which was to be the next logical step in the world of publishing.”2 No more heavy tomes to lift, nor those bothersome pages to turn, and (we assume) the text would be scalable to make it easy on the eyes.

These predictions did not exactly come true, but they established a vision that is driving some of the sweeping changes happening in publishing today.

The Current Future of the Book

What was once idle speculations or marketing ploys has now become real in ways no one could have predicted. The main force behind the change is the digitizing of information with computer devices capable of advanced graphic interface. But even as books have begun to evolve there is a typical backlash due to people missing aspects of traditional book reading. Inventors are beginning to try to incorporate traditional aspects of books that some will miss as content becomes completely digital.

– In this 2008 article we hear a humorous accounting of predictions for the next 100 years.3

blogimage_future-books_cd-2014– Infinite Books is a company that wants to bring back page-flipping into the experience of reading. “Through the infinite book it is possible to scroll through a digital book or media by flipping pages, like a normal book. This makes it possible to read a digital book with analogue navigation.”4

– A few companies have been involved in the attempt to develop not just flexible computers with flexible screens. Fujitsu is one company and it has already developed screens that use e-paper which can be folded.5 (SEE ARTICLE.) One current problem is that the flexibility tends to make touch-screen technology difficult.

– At least two companies, E-Ink and Xerox, have been working for decades to develop e-ink. The basic concept for both is that a page is “printed” with millions of tiny balls that may appear black or white, depending on an electric charge. The difficulty is in the application of the charge, specifically in “wiring the pages to create an electrical charge while still maintaining a paper-thin page”.6 SEE ARTICLE.

The Continuity of the Need for Design

blogimage_future-books_100-years-of-style-videoAs book designers we are living in an age of incredible change. In the end, if all book content is digital, we have to ask if this is really the end of art and (gasp) of design? We don’t think so, not because of how technology is changing, but because of how people do not. In looking at the history of societies one learns to distinguish between the forms of society and its functions. The forms change drastically over the millennia, but the functions do not. As an example, watch the video below which creatively demonstrates the change in styles throughout the last century.7

blogimage_future-books_f-2014The clothes, the mannerisms, and the dancing styles all change—but the two people are still performing the same basic function—dancing together. Styles and technology (the forms) change, but the functions do not. To see this same principle not over time but across many different cultures, take a look at this.8

As in society so in design. Creativity and art will play an essential aspect in the process. Design’s vital role is to meet basic requirements, in this case for communication. In the short term the functional advantages of e-books will limit design to technological rather than creative aspects. But design is fundamentally important both for improving the legibility of information as well as for making it aesthetically attractive. Technology can store and transmit data, but it takes design to organize and convey meaning. Books are not simply about data but about meaning, and conveying meaning is a human function that will remain, no matter what form the book takes.


So what does this mean for book design? While the form of books may change drastically, humans will retain a need for all the functions books perform. This includes the transmission of content, but more importantly the organization and display of content into meaningful segmentation and intuitive presentation. And that will still require good design. After all, a book without good design is no better than a simple Word Document.

1 – “Our Media, Ourselves: Are We Headed For A Matrix?”, by Bob Mondello, npr, February 20th, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/02/20/147041182/our-media-ourselves-are-we-headed-for-a-matrix?ft=1&f=3813466

2 – “The iPad of 1935”, Smithsonian.com, March 7th, 2012, http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/paleofuture/2012/03/the-ipad-of-1935

3 – “The Future of Books”, by James Warner, www.mcsweeneys.net, June 20th, 2008, http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-future-of-books

4 – “infinite-book-future-gadget-ewald-neuhofer-01.jpg” and “infinite-book-future-gadget-ewald-neuhofer-05.jpg”, from article Infinite Book, by Ewld Neuhofer, from fgadgets.com, http://fgadgets.com/future-gadgets/infinite-book-by-ewald-neuhofer

5 – “How Fabric PCs Will Work”, by Isaac perry Clements, howstuffworks.com, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/fabric-pc1.htm

6 – “How Electronic Ink Works”, by Kevin Bonsor, howstuffworks.com, http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/high-tech-gadgets/e-ink1.htm

7 – “100 years of East London style in 100 seconds. Sept 13th 1911 – Sept 13th 2011.”, by WestfieldStratford, YouTube, August 26th, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JxfgId3XTs

8- “Where the Hell is Matt? (2008)”, by MattHarding2718, YouTube, June 20th, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlfKdbWwruY&feature=related

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Publishing in Perspective

The World Is Changing

The world of books is changing, and along with it the publishing industry. We can see this in a myriad of details: sales of traditional books are down 25% across the board, sales of e-books are up 160%, Borders has closed and other book store chains are struggling. These changes are often attributed to the growing use of e-readers. But even before the Kindle took off there were already other factors that could be considered game changers: a sluggish economy, the rise of the super stores, the growing popularity of Amazon, and more. And these “game-changers” did not just affect book stores. They also affected publishers and those of us who love and work with books.

To help us put all these modern changes in perspective we thought it would be a good exercise to look back at history and review the adaptations, inventions, and other changes that have affected writing, reading, and publishing throughout the ages.

A Brief History of Writing, Reading & Publishing

blogimage_square_hieroglyphics1. Pictographic writing (developed between 7,000 BC and 4,000 BC) — first as mnemonic symbols which became ideograms or pictographs. “The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.” (2)

blogimage_square_papyrus2. Paper (2400 BC) — “The word “paper” is etymologically derived from papyros, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus plant.” (3) “Papyrus ( /pəˈpaɪrəs/) is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt.” (4)

blogimage_square_phoenician3. First alphabet (1800 BC)   — “West Semitic people from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean (where Phoenician and Hebrew groups lived) are usually credited with developing the world’s first alphabet.” (5) “The early alphabetic writing systems of Mesopotamia, such as the Phoenician alphabet, had only signs for consonants.” (6) Technically this meant it was not a true ‘alphabet’ in the narrow sense but a syllabic (glyphs represent syllables) because letters did not represent vowels and consonants.

blogimage_square_greek4. Vowels (800 BC)    — “The Greek alphabet for the first time introduces vowel signs.” (7) This is thought to have come about in order “to transcribe the meter (dactylic hexameters) of the great epics, Iliad and Odyssey, attributed to Homer, and the works of Hesiod.” (5)


blogimage_square_codex5. The codex (between 100 AD and 400 AD) — The book, before its modern form, was a continuous roll. Today’s codex form, multiple pages bound together between a hard cover, is more convenient than the scroll for finding information quickly, as well as for carrying and storage. (8)


blogimage_square_wordspacing6. Spaces between words (7th century AD) — The earliest Greek inscriptions used interpuncts, as was common in the writing systems preceded it, but soon the practice of scriptio continua, continuous writing in which all words ran together without separation became common.” … (in Medieval times) “the Greek style of scriptio continua became fashionable. In the 7th century Irish monks started using blank spaces, and introduced their script to France. By the 8th or 9th century spacing was being used fairly consistently across Europe (Knight 1996).” (6)

blogimage_square_press7. Printing press (around 1440 AD) — “The Western book was no longer a single object, written or reproduced by request. The publication of a book became an enterprise, requiring capital for its realization and a market for its distribution.” (8)

8. Steam printing press and steam paper mills (before 1820 AD) “Together, they caused book prices to drop and the number of books to increase considerably.” (8)

blogimage_square_ereader9. First e-book (1971 AD) — “Among the earliest general e-books were those in Project Gutenberg, in 1971.”(9)

10. Digital printing (1993 AD) — “The main difference between digital printing and traditional methods…is that no printing plates are used, resulting in a quicker and less expensive turn around time.”(10)

The E-Book and the Continuing
Need for Design Excellence

The innovations in the history of writing, reading, and publishing can be seen as innovations in handling ‘information’. Therefore, we can divide publishing into the following four sub-categories:

– content development of books (writing and design of communication),

– production of books,

– sale and transmission of books,

– and storage of books.

At Design Corps we are, of course, primarily concerned with the first sub-category — design of communication. With the latest digital technological changes, such as the e-book, the last three sub-categories are greatly advanced — cost of materials can be reduced, transportation can be done over the internet, and storage is achieved on any hard drive. But in the first subcategory, the area of communication design, it may be argued that there have been a few setbacks.

• First, with the quick proliferation of many titles there is the complaint that e-books contain many distracting typos. Hopefully this is just an aspect of the rush to market. One would expect this if the titles published with typos only including those old public domain titles that have been scanned and sold to make a quick buck. But some have complained of the same lack of attention to detail in new best sellers. Since proofreading does not change whether books are printed or published digitally we hope this is a momentary lapse attributable to massive changes in publishing.

• Second, in terms of layout e-books can be compared to the first web sites. They offer many benefits at the expense of design. Design is not just art for art’s sake but, rather, the crafting of the presentation of information to make it more accessible, interesting, and navigable for the human mind. In other words, there is something lost in e-books compared to traditional print books when it comes to page design for clear communication. The good news is that, as we have seen with any other technology from web sites to i-pods, design will be introduced as software improves.

• Third, digital books can introduce elements to reading that may enrich reading but also distract. Advantages like links, easy to scroll through text, and instant comments may increasingly sacrifice our ability to give the text our focused attention. As Steve Johnson wrote:

““I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.…This fragmentation sounds unnerving — yet another blow to the deep-focus linearity of the print-book tradition. Breaking the book into detachable parts may sell more books, but there are certain kinds of experiences and arguments that can only be conveyed by the steady, directed immersion that a 400-page book gives you.” (1)

But we believe e-books will go the way that the history of writing, the history of books, even the history of web sites has gone. In all of these the technology advanced to allow design to better organize information to be more easily understood by readers. At Design Corps we are committed to “TURNING INFORMATION INTO COMMUNICATION”. That is the fundamental role of all design, especially book design, and it is especially needed in this era of these transformative recent technologies.

(1) — (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html)

(2) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing)

(3) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper)

(4) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus)

(5) — (http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/language/f/1stalphabet.htm)

(6) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_space)

(7) —  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing) and (Millard, A. R. (1986). “The Infancy of the Alphabet”. World Archaeology 17  (3): 390–398. doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979978)

(8) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_books)

(9) — (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-book)

(10) – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_printing)

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