Books Still? Week 1: brief and tap-essays

Since 1975, the International Society of Typographic Designers has run an annual Student Assessment competition, with a series of set briefs. This year, I'm teaching a 3rd year Visual Communication project based on the 2013 'Books Still?' brief, which proposes:
Working with content that you have selected you are asked to develop an editorial design project that considers how we read in the 21st century. Choose a format that is appropriate for your subject matter and your target market. It could be a high quality printed publication, a screen-based interpretation or a combination of these. Current developments in publishing should be considered such as printed books, apps, ‘Print on Demand’ (PoD) hypertext links in digital formats … .

Possible content could include genre publishing such as crime, literary fiction, Illustrated books, thriller, science fiction, film, history, classic novels, short stories, or your project could move beyond book design into the broader arena of editorial design to include journals, newsletters, newspaper supplements.
I have restricted my students to working with non-fiction, and set three text options to choose from: a series of recipes from Mark Crick's Kafka's Soup: A complete history of World Literature in 14 Recipes; an excerpt from 'The Art of Fiction No. 36', an interview with William S. Burroughs by Conrad Knickerbocker for The Paris Review; an excerpt from Gabrielle Carey's forthcoming book Young Man of Dangerous Tendencies

To start the conversation on how we read in the 21st century, we looked at Robin Sloan's 'tap essay' Fish. A tap essay, or tappable story, is a digital storytelling medium for iPad/iPhone. Readers tap the screen to move forward, but there is no moving backwards – if you accidentally skip forward, you have to progress through the whole essay and start over to find your place.  

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Fish is a "short but heartfelt manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet" which is presented as a 'tap-essay'. After reading the essay, consider the ways the author has manipulated our reading experience, through typographic pacing and the interface design of the essay:
  • At times, only one word is revealed per tap, other times whole sentences. 
  • Hierarchy (point size, colour) is used for emphasis. 
  • There are ‘pause’ screens in there – blank screens that indicate we should reflect, hold onto the previous thought a while longer before continuing. 
  • By only allowing us to click forward, never back, Sloan forces us to slow down – if we tap too quickly, we become lost. I’ve shown this to a few people and watched them launch into rapid tapping, to skim and see what ‘happens’, entirely missing the point, but also performing the reason that we need reading experiences designed like this. Slow down. Read something properly. If our default reaction is to skim in order to ‘get to the point’ as quickly as possible, we may end up never getting the point.
--> Robin Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumba’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is awaiting my focused attention, in the 'Read Next' book pile on my desk. Other novels that use unconventional typography to effect reading pace are: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves; Douglas Copeland’s J-Pod.


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