The WIRED app — Who is in Charge?

I recommend the WIRED Magazine app. If you have an iPad (it will not run on an iPhone) and have been a Wired reader do get the app ($4.99) to make up your own mind about it. These are some of the things I most like about it:

  • Gorgeous graphics and ‘interesting’ design — we will get on to that.
  • Excellent and pithy articles on topics that any iPad owner will find interesting (lots of stuff: eg Steven Levy on why and how tablets will work)
  • Helpful navigation through the ‘layout’ mode for viewing the whole magazine in article strips (icon at top right)
  • I liked the interactivity in the Mars article (but its hard to read/navigate because a bit lacking in stability – patience!)
  • Great ads and they are all there, sometimes with links

There is already quite a bit of controversy about the Wired app and it has had a painful birth. Originally, Conde Nast and Adobe were working together on a prototype that would have used Flash and the expectation was that Apple would support Flash directly on the iPhone OS, or that the Adobe cross-compiler solution would do the business. Steve Jobs shot down this idea. So they have clearly had to cobble together something pretty fast, abandoning a framework that must have cost them a lot of time and effort. The resulting app is massive (500 Mb) and has some obvious misses — no search! But they will surely be able to improve the delivery when they move forward. Here are three important links if you want more insight into the reactions and the controversy:

  1. Adobe’s blog, welcoming the arrival of the app: ‘The future of magazines is now – and it starts in a tangible way with the WIRED Reader.’ (They must know that isn’t right, they know that this version of the Wired app was a rescue mission and pretty much lashed together when they had to come up with something fast. Adobe do not come out of this whole affair at all well. They do not have a ‘road map’ for magazine publishers and had better come clean on that. See Bill McCoy’s comments).
  2. Interfacelab (Jon Gilkinson) has many astute comments and insights. Its also rude verging on insulting: “Sure, it’s a print designers wet dream – but it really should be a consumer’s wet dream. And it most certainly is not that.” Gilkinson’s answer is to put the business back in the hands of the web designers at Wired HQ and deliver the whole thing in HTML5. The circulation director or publisher is going to reject this proposal as there is some sign that users will buy apps, but not so much that they will buy ‘urls’.
  3. Print designers wet dream? Well try Oliver Reichenstein’s blog at Information Architects to find out why it isn’t that. This blog even brought in some thoughtful comments from one of the type designers consulted by Wired over the design of this issue of the magazine (Jonathan Hoefler)

Reichenstein’s critique gets very detailed and very nerdy, but it is truly surprising that he focuses on the typography, not on the images, illustrations and navigation. His key point is foreshadowed in this objection:

But text is a different story. It needs a lot of rhetoric skill and typographic care to do what it should: to communicate. On the screen things become even more complicated. While WIRED journalists and graphic designers are still at the top of their game, the typography and the interaction design of the iPad app doesn’t come even close.

So Reichenstein presumably thinks that magazines should be root and branch re-designed for the iPad. “You can’t design iPad apps in InDesign and export them as flat files. That’s nothing short of amateurish. ” But of course you can design magazines in InDesign and then export pages to an app, and this is a very strange comment unless you believe that magazines need to be re-designed in precise and granular detail for iPads. InDesign does not exist to design iPad apps, it exists to design magazines and other forms of document. But it is equally inevitable that most documents will now need to be read, used and presented on iPads (iPhones, Android devices etc). So a modern magazine, newspaper, book, catalogue etc better look good or ‘reasonably OK’ when it is rendered on some of these devices in widespread use. The transition has to be automatic. No text designers involved. Does anybody seriously think that text in magazines needs to be designed and then redesigned for each and every piece of consumer computing technology that comes along. Will magazines need to be ‘redesigned’ for next year’s Android and then again for the 2012 super-iPad? So that they can support different screen resolutions or styles of ‘text flow’? Magazines do not need to be redesigned for the iPad, their use and their usability as digital objects has to be understood before they are transformed to an app platform. This is not primarily a task for text designers, or even for magazine designers.

Wired has always had a deliberately various, bold, edgy, contrapuntal visual design. It has been a notable strength of the print magazine. The variety and confusion has worked so well in recent years partly because it apes in print the choice and chaos of the web; each Wired story carrying its own design conventions or layout, as though we were tipped into another web site as we turned the page. Each article node with its own style-sheet. I suspect that the post-modern jokiness and anarchy of Wired’s visual design, which works so well when it is a print-only magazine, may be something of a weakness when it comes to its digital existence. Perhaps, as it heads to a new digital existence on the iPad and whatever comes next, Wired will need to forsake the promiscuous hurly-burly of the designer’s chaise-longe for the sobriety and solidity of the app store.

Reflecting on this Wired app, which it has to be said is a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’, I have been asking myself who has been driving this project forward? Adobe may have been at one stage, but they seem to have driven this proposition off the road (see Bill McCoy Wired is Tired). Conde Nast appears to have given the leadership role to Wired’s distinguished designer Scott Dadich, but getting the digital strategy right is not merely a design decision, it is not just a technical decision. The project should now be driven by the publisher, even better it should be driven by the circulation director of the Conde Nast group. One can understand why Wired would be one of the first magazines from Conde Nast to have its own app, but whatever solution or platform is chosen for Conde Nast’s magazines should really be one that can deliver across the group. Si Newhouse must have expected his premier publishing company to have chosen the best strategy for digital magazines by now. The solution is overdue and I think/hope they will get it right soon.

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