Tablets might save magazines someday, but we’re not there yet. In May, Hearst International reported that it was selling around 600,000 tablet editions a month. That’s not bad, but it’s nothing compared to the 22 million magazines the publisher sells every month in print. That disparity will diminish as more people buy tablets, but there’s another significant hurdle standing in the way of the tablet magazine: no one has really figured out how to do them right. Publications like Wired and Popular Science were quick out of the gate with sophisticated iPad apps, and while they did offer some compelling multimedia experiences that couldn’t be done in print, the apps lacked the ease of use that’s central to enjoying a magazine. The New Yorker has seen success with its relatively straightforward digital edition, but there’s nothing that really differentiates it from the print version, except maybe that it’ll save you the embarrassment of having a tower of unread issues on your nightstand.
The point is, we’re still very early in the whole tablet magazine endeavor. So when Opening Ceremony, the taste-making international clothing boutique, was planning its new once-a-year magazine and attendant iPad app, they decided to do something a little bit radical. The editors invited the digital designers to join the conversation before the contributors started in on their pieces, encouraging the two sides to work together to envision interactive experiences that were unique to each artist and tailored to their contributions. The result is magazine app that’s diverse in content while remaining cohesive in vision. Basically, it’s the rare magazine app that doesn’t seem like an afterthought.
"A Tennis Match With Content"
From the beginning, the editor in chief of Opening Ceremony Annual, Rory Satran, intended to make an app that could stand on its own. "I think we’ve all seen those things," she told me, "that look like they’ve been conceived of in a boardroom with some old publisher that goes, 'We need an app!' And then it’s this very pat thing." But the process of putting together the app for OC Annual was anything but pat. The inaugural issue, centered around a sports theme, brought together a diverse range of contributors, from little known Internet artists to renowned fashion photographers. Satran wanted to give them all a chance to contribute to the app on their own terms.
Gin Lane Media, the New York-based outfit responsible for designing the app, worked with Satran and the magazine’s contributors to create seven interactive experiences. In a piece on youth sports subcultures by photographer Poppy de Villeneuve and journalist Nathaniel Kilcer, what initially appears to be a straightforward slide show turns out to be something much richer—mixed in among the photos are video snapshots and audio clips in which the kids talk about what it’s like being a young diver or motocross rider. The mixed media presentation offers a portrait of the kids in a way that a simple slide show never could.
"I really want everyone that sees the print version of that story to get that 360 degree view," Satran says. "To hear those kids talking about their dives, and to see those visuals of the motocross—I think it adds so much to it. And Nathaniel and Poppy were really thinking of both while they shot over a period of a month, going to all these strange sports sites. They would come back to me afterward, and they’d be talking about the film and about the audio as much as they were talking about getting the perfect image. And I think that’s very modern."
Other sections of the app include a video on top of which the reader can doodle with transparent touch-screen paint, and a fashion spread that lets the user pick the background and the models they want to put on it, each fully positionable and resizable.
"The whole process for this," explained Emmett Shine, Gin Lane’s founder, "is you can’t retroactively fit content into a more rich experience." Only because they knew about the multimedia slide show from the outset were Kilcer and de Villeneuve able to gather the materials needed for both the print and digital components of their youth sports piece. That sort of digital deference might be a shock to the system for career magazine executives who are used to designing for print and the simple web, but to drive magazines forward, publishers will have to learn to mine the iPad’s interactive potential. Shine says he wanted to create "a kind of proof of concept as to where more editorial-based conversations and content can go." Thankfully, the artists were game: "A lot of the artists involved were very receptive to creating content which could be altered—which is artistically not something that people are always open to. But I think you gotta play to the strengths of the medium, and the iPad is such an interactive conversational piece." The ultimate goal, he explained, was to create an experience in which the user could have "a tennis match with content."
So Easy A Kid Could Use It
In building the OC Annual app, Satran and Shine surveyed some of the other magazine apps that were out there, but much of their design inspiration came from a less likely source: storybook apps. The lessons gleaned from kids apps like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, in which a simple fable comes to life through richly animated scenes, are relatively straightforward: Keep things simple and keep the reader engaged. But that’s precisely where some of the early tablet magazines went astray.
"I think some of those [children’s] stories are really good," Shine told me, "because the ones for adults overcomplicate everything and they’re really hard to use. The ones for kids, there’s so much focus on getting the kid to turn the page and not just walk away, that it has to be really, really simple and thought out while rewarding them … I thought they do a really good job at giving that action/reaction response to keep you engaged."
That simplicity is essential to the magazine experience, and digital magazines will never succeed if they aren’t just as easy to figure out as their paper predecessors. Interactivity and engagement are important, but they can’t come at the expense of, say, understanding how many stories there are in total, or being able to quickly get back to some sort of table of contents to access them. Shine put the print magazine’s appeal succinctly: "You don’t get lost in a magazine. The magazine doesn’t shut down." Finding ways to push the envelope while maintaining that ease of use, he says, is a "fun, tricky balance."
Lessons for the Future
Going forward, print publications will need some sort of digital component to succeed. As Satran says, "a print magazine falling out of the sky into the universe isn’t really valid anymore." The OC Annual's take on this seems to be a smart one—iPad users can enjoy the free app without buying the magazine, though the interactive items might drive them to pick up the print version. The best advertising, after all, is good content. But if there’s any place the OC Annual comes up short, it’s that the app is a bit too independent from the print magazine. The youth sports section, for example, doesn’t include the text from the corresponding print piece, so in some ways it feels like you’re getting a great side dish without the main course. For a free app, it’s a generous offering, but it doesn’t quite feel like a full tablet magazine as much as a smart digital supplement.
Still, for digital magazines to really come into their own, Satran says, more publishers will have to be willing to put the time into creating compelling digital content. "I think if print magazines start putting some of their best stuff as online only," she says, "that’s when people are going to really respond … If you’re putting those exclusives and amazing special things in applications, then people are going to follow."
And in terms of design? Shine thinks there’s plenty of room to explore, even if the technology is still somewhat uncharted. Making a native tablet application, he says, "takes a little bit of time, it’s not a hyper efficient process … But right now it’s fun because there’s not as much of a blueprint out there, so you kind of have to figure it out as you go, which is always stimulating. We have very traditional ways of how magazines and print are laid out," he continued, "which we reference [by default]. And when we design native applications, it’s easy to reference how you build a website. And they’re very different. It’s fun if you just take a white piece of paper and say, 'What could I do different for the interface that makes sense?' But you never want the interface elements to overpower the content. Without good content there’s really nothing."