Book Design for a Pixelated World

July 13, 2007

King ArthurI’m just beginning work on my next book design project, a digital edition of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’m in the early stages, exploring the book’s themes and trying to find a way to tie those into a meaningful design that can connect with a modern audience.

Designing for a digital edition is different from print. Hundreds of years of finely-honed aesthetic and information design methods from paper and ink are only partly applicable to the digital realm, and best practices for long documents in particular are still ill-defined, driven by rapid changes in both technology and the habits of the humans peering at the screen. [At this point, I began writing a rather wonky digression into the world of emerging digital publishing standards, but I’ve decided to defer that for a later, purely-wonkified post. *gm]

This added complexity in the digital realm has its compensations, however. Book design is suddenly freed from the economic and technical shackles imposed by the presses. An ebook chock full of high-quality color images essentially costs the same to reproduce as a minimal one-color, all-text book. Layouts with full bleeds, richer use of type, reversed colors and visually-engaging composition all become options at a small incremental cost, even if they’re not always necessary or desirable. Integration of rich media like audio and video become possibilities, too, when appropriate.

Given these advantages, ebooks have to potential to transcend the print editions that preceded them.

The page spreads below, from my earlier project, The War of the Worlds, illustrate some of the possibilities.

The ebook’s first portion is H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel. Largely traditional in layout (below), it’s intended to rightly focus attention on the star of the show — the narrative. Darkly-textured, full-page visuals (based on Warwick Goble’s first-edition illustrations) were liberally sprinkled in to reinforce the pervasive gloom.

War of the Worlds, Figure 1

The ebook’s final section (below) presents Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio adaptation of the novel. Given the lighter text content and its news-feature flavor, this section takes on a magazine-like layout, while still retaining elements of the traditional book design from the novel that precedes it. The integration of audio and video media add an optional but persuasive dimension to the experience. Reading about the radio show and ensuing panic may give some level of knowledge, but listening to the frightened voices in the show’s simulated newscasts imparts a deeper, visceral understanding of how millions came to believe Martians were invading New Jersey.

War of the Worlds, Figure 2

One explicit, overarching goal in this book design (shared by all editions published under the WOWIO Classics imprint) is to lavish this important literary content with the same design and typographical care that an archival-quality print edition would receive.

As a point of comparison, older works like The War of the Worlds are in the public domain and are available at many online sources like Project Gutenberg. While Gutenberg’s volunteers are providing an invaluable service in helping to preserve and make available these cultural jewels in the most flexible and long-lived formats possible, optimizing the design and presentation of the content is simply beyond the scope of their mission. Typical Gutenberg editions include simple HTML-style presentation of text and scanned imagery, tied together with internal hyperlinks. This approach has many advantages for content flexibility and for readability on devices with low-resolution displays (like PDAs or low-end handheld computers).

Reading long-form content like novels, however, begs for something more than a basic 90s-era HTML display. The design conventions developed for print offer many practical advantages for orientation, navigation and readability. Many of these need to be adapted, where appropriate, to the digital medium. But beyond these pragmatic concerns, a well-designed book offers something harder to quantify — the cumulative effect of the small touches that comfort a reader’s eye and make the overall reading experience a pleasurable one. In print, most of these touches have become convention, being so ubiquitous and working so well that they have become nearly invisible (like all good design). In digital documents, this level of effort is rare. Combined with very real limitations in display technologies, the result is a common perception that ebooks are hard to read.

The technology issues are rapidly being solved — better high-resolution displays, improved battery life and curling-up-with-a-good-book form factors are coming. In my ideal world, a light, magazine-sized reader will fix the ergonomic issues. At that point, well-designed, page-oriented ebooks will come into their own and will finally usher in the long-predicted transition to a mostly-digital reading world.



  1. Looking forward to your “wonky digression into the world of emerging digital publishing standards”. Please write it soon!

  2. Difficult to imagine “curling up” with an iBook. They’ll first have to be flexible and without any glare at all.

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