Adobe’s Liquid Layout

PaidContent and magCulture have posted video of Adobe’s Kiyo Toma demonstrating some ideas for liquid layout.

What do you make of the demo? My impression is that his comments betray real uncertainty about whether this approach can possibly be right. This is not a completely confident presentation. The problem is the starting point.

Adobe seems to be assuming that with a magazine on the iPad you need to have a rearranged layout for the magazine when it is viewed in portrait and another layout for the magazine when it is viewed in landscape. You heard that correctly: two different layouts, in fact two different files. Different files in InDesign! And as the commentary recognises this means that you are going to need many more variations for tablets of different screen sizes, pixel densities and aspect ratios.

The remedy for this problematic requirement is Adobe’s new liquid layout with its system of ‘springs and struts’ which will reduce the need for a magazine to have two, or four, or eight different passes through the design process. But will it? As the example produced in the demo graphically shows: you still will need a designer to figure out whether the springs and struts are working in an acceptable fashion. The demo-ed example shows a bicycle which gets dramatically chopped to lose its front wheel when being shown on a smaller Android tablet; whereas the wheel is all there and working in the original layout shown on an iPad. Its a problem. Bicycles don’t become unicycles when you switch a magazine from an iPad to a KindleFire. Fat men don’t become thin when you go to three column layout. Its not going to go away. If you have ‘liquid’ text and adaptive layout for multiple shapes and sizes of tablets, you still need to figure how not-liquid photographs and diagrams are to be included in the mix. Text can flow, but images are harder — they don’t melt. If you are going to design your magazine for 8 different shaped-sized tablets with 16 different orientations you are going to need to make a ‘human’ pass through 16 different views of you source file. There are going to be at least that many varieties of tablet size and aspect ratios. And there is not going to be a stable end point. We haven’t seen the wall-mounted touch screen yet.

Why should Adobe be clinging so hard to this idea that a magazine needs to be redesigned for each orientation of a tablet? Why not have a magazine that can be ‘opened’ in either orientation, just like a book or a video or a stack of photos? Same book, same photos, same videos. Not pairs of adaptive videos.  The only answer I can offer is crassly commercial. Adobe knows that it will get no purchase on the iOS real estate unless it can invent a complicated ‘solution’. Apple will not let Adobe (or anyone else) insert a proprietary display or graphics standard in the iOS mix, so in some desperation Adobe is trying to invent a solution that is proprietary in requiring a very special ‘adaptive’ layout. It is making life somewhat difficult for publishers so that Adobe can magically produce a solution that meets this artificial need. Adobe knows that it can’t control or own the tablet so it is trying to control the format via the publisher’s workflow. That might be OK if it was making the publisher’s workflow simpler, but it quite evidently is not doing so.

I don’t think designers are altogether happy with this approach. PaidContent quotes Scott Dadich: “Bringing it all together in to a cohesive workflow has been a real challenge for us. It’s been tough – there’s a lot more work,” Scott Dadich is Conde Nast’s top US designer and has been working with Adobe since before the iPad was launched. He knows how much work they have already had to do.

Adobe have driven themselves into a peculiar cul de sac from which there is no obvious exit. They have taken some of the most powerful magazine designers with them, once you believe that magazines need to have two different arrangements on a computer, you are committed to offering 2, 4, 6, 8 … views for each new device that emerges (unless the device has exactly the same geometry as one you have already covered). The problem is the starting point.

There is arguably a ‘knock-down’ argument for why we should only have one format, only one, for every magazine, and it is this. Magazine reading has always been and needs to be a shared experience, an experience that you can easily share. As magazines become embedded in social applications we will again find the value of a format that we know the other guy is seeing. I don’t want to have to check that my Facebook friends are using an Amazon tablet, or a portrait orientation on their iPad. I want them to know that the picture they are looking at is the same as the one I see. Same picture, same magazine, same layout: two wheels or one.