In 2005, at the start of my time as a photographer, I got to witness the death of an art form first hand. Kodak, who for a century had been the king of photo supplies, announced they were discontinuing their line of printing paper. This, followed by a series of companies and film products vanishing signaled the format’s inevitable demise. Of course film is still alive physically, but it’s mind share is dead. In just six years, film has become an old fashioned speciality for the “art” crowd. This shift was never more apparent to me than when I asked fashion designer Scott Sternberg why he shot his lookbooks with Polaroids and he told me it gave him the flexibility of digital with the look of film. Nothing cements an art form’s death more than when it gets relegated to merely a “look”.
Giving into my desire for creative chaos I found myself in publishing, an industry also in transition, and making the same mistakes. Embracing a market with unfounded zeal, rushed production, and narrow vision is right out of photography’s playbook. The problem with photography’s transition to digital was that it was so focused on the transition itself that it was left creatively hindered for years as just a new kind of camera you didn’t have to buy film for. The devices were not programmed for the new user, they were programmed for the old photographer stuck in his ways. In the same manner, the magazine app is hurting itself by looking at the tablet as a digital version of its present-day self.
An iPad’s only similar characteristic to the magazine is that they are roughly the same size and shape. The tablet is a new medium built on the language of applications, not print design. This is a big reason why the initial offering of iPad magazines as “the magazine that can do more” failed. It cannot be assumed that readers will always think of a digital magazine in the context of its print counterpart. For years someone picked up a magazine to read it; it was its own object with its own meaning. Now we pick up a tablet and the magazine is just a feature of the device. For years we thought of a digital camera as just another camera, now we don’t even think of them as cameras, we just take pictures. As our devices consolidate so does our collective understanding at how specific things function.
This oversight has given us cookie cutter apps, where each magazine is dumped into the same lacking experience. The common excuse for this is that the proper tools for print designers haven’t been developed yet. Any truth in that explanation is clouded by what I can’t tell is either arrogance or ignorance. Is it a case of not knowing how to adapt, or the unwillingness to embrace change? Do we really need new tools to make great magazine apps, or do we need new publishing tools to better recreate the “print” experience? Is a magazine the act of swiping static pages or is it the editorial design, and the content?
There is no reason to think that print will die anytime soon, or that its fate is sealed. However, in the years to come the reader’s mind share will shift. They will appreciate printed materials but only if they can download them as well. They will accept a lesser experience over ease of use because overall they care about the content most of all. When that happens, and if our magazine apps are still just print doppelgangers that only retain the “look” of what we remember from paper bound together, then that just means we will have to wait a couple more years until a new generation, removed from a dominant print experience, will figure out how to really make a great tablet magazine.