Digital content developers appreciate that today differences between screens affect user experience with content.

User experience differs in numerous ways for content between tablets, smartphones, ereaders, laptops and desktops.

Content jumps off the screen when it suits the target format or device. Today content follows format, a reversal of the 20th century design principle that form follows content.

Content is optimised to cope with the proliferation of operating systems, device speeds, and screen types and sizes. All this applies for example to retina display on iPads and iPhones relative to other devices.

These variables are relevant to us too as digital content lawyers and consultants. We only get to first base in digital content projects by requesting or guiding development of appropriate instructions. These may be project management and business documents such as project plans, product plans, and business plans. Additionally, we request or help develop site maps, descriptions of information architecture, wireframes, workflows, storyboards or functional specifications.

Did you notice how many of those documents sketch the user interface (“UI”) for digital content?

UI varies greatly across types of digital content and devices, eg online services, ebooks, iPad apps, smartphone apps, and cross-device apps. We’re currently active in projects for all of these, swimming in UI innovation and documentation.

The proliferation of screen sizes and types makes UI once more a front and centre issue for digital content. An effective UI creates competitive advantage.

With these current creative and business problems in mind I stumbled on a relevatory passage in a 2009 book* I’ll quote shortly. The book is EyeWitness: The Rise and Fall of Dorling Kindersley. Its author, Christopher Davis, was an insider at Dorling Kindersley, rebranded to DK. DK is one of the most successful book publishers of recent decades. Davis worked for DK for 30 years, in roles from Managing Editor to Editorial Director to Publisher and Deputy Chairman.

DK’s story is about UI innovation for illustrated books, as well as digital content design.

DK design (a UI solution)

The creative talent leader of DK was Peter Kindersley. He developed a visual design language – book cover and page layouts harmonising photos, graphics, captions, text blocks, headings, and regular text. They translated well to CD-ROMs, the web and ebooks for the iPad.

DK’s UI solution for books emerged in the 1970s and improved in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was adapted for CD-ROM content and the web. Importantly, DK had suitably aligned legal and business thinking. DK made integration strategic.

DK law

Kindersley ensured intellectual property rights were closely helped by DK, in the process building a vast library of images that became its honey pot in deal making. DK shareholders over the years included Microsoft, Readers Digest and now Pearson, the media group behind Penguin.

DK business

DK’s approach to book design did not come cheap. For example, every page of its DK Eyewitness book series in the late 1980s cost £1,000 to originate, totalling £60,000 per book. This was probably 10 times what a traditional publisher would have spent.

DK’s books made money, with massive print runs and distribution globally, including via direct selling with 30,000 independent distributors.

DK grew organically over 25 years to be a publicly listed company with a turnover of £200 million, some 1,500 employees and a presence internationally. It sold more than 50 million copies of its Eyewitness series of picture books and in 40 languages, and another 50 million of its Eyewitness Travel Guides.

Davis explains DK’s design story in the quote below. It’s one of the best descriptions you’ll ever read of how great design works and why. It is on book design, and inspires thinking about digital content design.

“It may sound like a recipe for chaos but Dorling Kindersley thrived on complexity, both creatively and operationally.

In the first instance, the designs on the page, in particular those with the Eyewitness look, are deliberately complex. They may appear open and simple to use by the reader – and that was the ultimate goal – but hidden within them are layers of built-in hierarchy to provide special emphasis or establish points of difference. The relative sizes of the images and how they are placed on the spread, the different sizes of font, the use of annotation, the positioning of captions adjacent to an image, are all worked out to a template with the aim of, firstly, creating an emotional impact with which to draw in the reader, and, secondly, allowing that reader to graze the page and, like snaffling canapés at a drinks party, but cumulatively satisfying.

Those who dismissed the Eyewitness Guides as being all pictures and not enough substance hadn’t looked closely. In its 64 pages an Eyewitness contains approximately 15,000 words. It is the manner in which the text is scattered around the page that is deceptive. And yet so beneficial to the reluctant reader who would shrivel up at the prospect of 15,000 words presented, page after page, in solid walls of type. But here, spread across the tablecloth of the white background like a tempting buffer of morsels – and I have witnessed this with such readers – the prospect of absorbing the words is no longer daunting but positively to be enjoyed.

The crucial element is the proximity of the text to the image it describes. This style of design came to be known as Lexigraphics, and Peter Kindersley would give interviews and deliver lectures about the art and science of Words and Pictures whenever an opportunity presented itself. He took his inspiration from the Swedish design guru, Sven Lidman, whose mantra was, “Through the picture I see reality, through the word I understand it”. The core of Peter’s message was that pictures are fast to absorb, and words are slow, but if they are placed side-by-side, the effect is to equalise the speed of their impact – the image speeds up the words, and the words slow down the image. It sounded convincing. The way in which we had originally arrived at the Eyewitness style of design may have had more to do with art than science, but now he could bolster its worldwide success with the plausible notion that it was proving its worth as an effective learning tool, one that would be the key instrument in DK’s ultimate drive to be an educational publisher.

We launched our first US publishing list with an ad campaign headed “What Is A Fish?” It began with a picture of a carp, and no text; this was succeeded by a description of a carp, and no image; the clinching spread that followed was an Eyewitness treatment of a carp with varying levels of text, captions and annotation surrounding the same image of the fish, utterly transformed and made both more interesting and more dramatic by its juxtaposition of words and pictures.

This artful complexity was at the heart of DK’s success at maintaining its pole position as the premier producer of illustrated non-fiction for so many years.”

I hope you too found this passage from the Davis book inspiring for the UI and digital content design for mobile device apps, ebooks and online services. What digital content design commentary or samples inspire you? Tell us about it in Comments below.

* Page 254-255, Christopher Davis, EyeWitness: The Rise and Fall of Dorling Kindersley, Christopher Davis (Harriman House Ltd, London 2009).

You can also see and hear Davis explain the challenge in the 1970s for illustrated content in this YouTube video.

Contact us with any questions or requests.

Noric Dilanchian