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What's the Future of Book Design? (Part 1)

With e-books now outselling print titles on Amazon.com, the book business is undergoing its most radical transformation in living memory. Everyone and their literate cat has an opinion about what the industry's future holds, but what about the people who actually design books as products? How do they foresee the digital shift affecting their jobs, and their craft? 


A few weeks ago, I decided to find out. With the help of my friend and former colleague Misha Beletsky (art director, Abbeville Press), I asked over fifty top designers—both inside and outside the publishing industry—a single question: What do you think book design will be like 10 years from now? This highly nonscientific survey was conducted via Facebook’s poll application, meaning that respondents could offer (and vote for) their own answers in lieu of an existing option. Here, in order, are the five answers that rose to the top:

  • Book design, its paper physicality, will not change, but far fewer books will be printed (23 votes)
  • Book design will migrate to e-book readers (13 votes)
  • Book design will not change (7 votes*)
  • Book design will adapt to digital media and become more powerful and dynamic (3 votes)
  • None of the above (2 votes)
  • *Not counting one voter who chose to quote David Byrne: “Same as it ever was.”

    There were also a few provocative original responses that garnered only their authors’ votes. Architect Victoria Meyers predicts that in ten years, “paper books will only be for the upper classes” as in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel The Diamond Age. A different kind of demographic forecast comes from the design educator Jim Craig, who believes that “book design ten years from now will be dictated by the age of the readers.” Craig elaborates:

    “The older generation will continue to prefer reading print editions of books, magazines, and newspapers, while the younger generation will prefer e-books. Print editions of books will look pretty much the same as today and yesterday, while e-books will feature interactive graphics that we can't even imagine now.”

    One thing to note about the top five responses is that they’re not all mutually exclusive. Taken together, they suggest a greatly reduced but still viable role for the print book, with a corresponding—and permanent—rise of the e-book as the dominant platform. What will this mean for designers from a technical and craft standpoint? The comments section of the poll provided some intriguing thoughts on that score, which I’ll share and discuss in my next post.

    As for my colleague Misha, he chose the option “Book design will not change,” explaining that “the ideal appearance of a printed book as a beautiful and functional object has remained the same for over five hundred years. How short we are going to fall of this ideal in the next decade will only depend on our efforts.” He also pointed out the most encouraging result of the poll: not a single person predicted that book design will die.

    [Image: Penny’s computer book from Inspector Gadget. Via Quora.com, user Tim Flagg.]

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    • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
    • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

    Dramatic and misleading

    Image: Reddit / SICResearch

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    The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

    Let's zoom in:

    • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
    • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
    • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
    • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
    • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
    • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

    "Frightening map"

    Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

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    • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
    • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
    • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

    Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

    • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
    • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
    • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
    • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

    "Old people learning to Google"

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

    But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

    • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
    • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
    • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
    • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

    A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

    The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

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    CNN, Fox and MSNBC

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

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    • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
    • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

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