Unbound Pages


Page Magic

What we need—and what, at least as of this week, doesn’t yet exist—is a detailed, rules-based system of adaptive layout that is not limited to any one platform or reading device. I call this “page H&J.” [2] The really hard part is that, since the end result is malleable (changeable screen sizes and resolutions, changeable fonts and font sizes), the intelligence built into the H&J system has to be part of the reading software, not just the page-production software that creates the book. At least the reading device has to recognize and honor all the fine typographic controls that the designer has applied to the text.

While the current generation of e-book readers and e-reader software can take an electronic document format like EPUB and render it into pages, the devices and programs all lack the sophistication to make a cascading series of choices that results in consistently good pages. The best of them compose mediocre pages with weak typography, and the worst produce a page that’s legible but hard to read.

The elements of a successful e-book design and production tool are several: H&J (as good as InDesign’s), the ability to do grid-based screen layoutmedia query (knowing the nature of the screen the book is being displayed on), keep & break controls (for deciding which elements of a page have to stay together and which can be divided or bumped entirely to another page), and what I call element query (giving each element on the page a way to know the nature of the other elements and the rules governing them). Simple, right?

I’ve been writing and speaking about this for the last couple of years, trying to goose the publishing and software industries into rising to the challenge. It will take a commitment of resources to excellence in publishing, not just to market dominance. And it will take thinking beyond that peculiar marketing bubble that each software company calls its “ecosystem.”

But it’s truly important to do this, and to do it now. It’s not too much to say that this is important to human culture. We’re at a pivot point, the start of a sea change, and whatever standards we set today are the ones we’ll be living with—and reading by—for a long time to come.

As a much-quoted Latin aphorism has it, littera scripta manet: the written word remains. It will certainly help if those words are designed to be read.

[1] Even in print, there are absurd inconsistencies in the software. Adobe, for instance, felt for years that creative typographers wouldn’t care about automating production, and that production typesetters would be content without fine creative control. So they gave us two separate products for these ostensibly separate purposes. Happily, this isn’t a choice we have to make so often these days.
[2] In digital typesetting, “H&J” is short for hyphenation and justification, the complex system of algorithms that a page-layout application uses to determine where and how to break the lines. This includes the rules for where and when to hyphenate words.

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