In 2010, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design published Ecological Urbanism, a book of interdisciplinary essays on sustainable city-building. But the project had one inescapable shortcoming: When you’re dealing with a field that’s evolving so rapidly, a finite, physical book is liable to be outdated by the time it leaves the printer. In fact, it’s more of a likelihood than a liability. So upon completing the collection, the school commissioned Portland-based interactive studio Second Story to transform the book into an iPad app, a resource that would draw from the original text but could also be updated with new projects and papers as needed. Now available for free, the app shows how dynamic areas of study can benefit greatly from equally dynamic texts.
From the outset, it was clear to both the team at Second Story and the book’s editors that the material warranted more than a plain old e-book. Michael Pittman, the project’s producer at Second Story, remembers the book’s co-editor, Gareth Doherty, explaining his vision for something that would "further dimensionalize the content in the book"—an app that transformed the material into an interactive experience rather than merely repackaging it for the touch screen.
The main way that transformation manifests itself is through a total departure from the original book’s linear presentation. Sure, someone who picked up the Ecological Urbanism book could jump from chapter to chapter, but the inclination is to start at page one. The designers at Second Story, who had access not only to the finished book but also leftover content and material that surfaced after its publishing, quickly set about analyzing that content and reorganizing it with multiple points of entry.
"We started deconstructing the stories and reassembling them in visual modes," Pittman explains. "After analyzing the diversity of projects, we found similarities in scale, geography, and time." In the app, those categories became a handful of different places for users to dive in. In a "data" section, projects are plotted on a two-axis graph, by scale and date of completion. The dot for architect William McDonough’s green re-imagining of a Ford factory in Detroit, formerly a big-time polluter, is found at 2003 on the x-axis and "M" for medium on the y-axis. Le Corbusier’s forward-thinking design for Chandigarh, the capital city for India’s Punjab province, is plotted at 1959, though it gets an "XL" designation for scale. Tapping on one of these dots brings you to the screen dedicated to the project, complete with an explanatory column of text and a handful of images that can be swiped through at full screen.
Pittman contends that features like that graph aren’t only novel ways to access the data but also useful tools for understanding it. "While working on the app, we found that the data visualizations revealed patterns that told another meta-story that already existed in the book," he says. "Essentially, the patterns illustrated trends in sustainable design, which is attractive for both scholars and the general reader to see."
Overall, the experience is one that brings the authority and curation of a book with the visual panache and intuitive navigation of a well-designed website—a sort of best-of-both-worlds proposition that’s always been the great promise of interactive books but remains elusive all the same. And so long as the people in Cambridge keep it updated, it’s the rare book that will actually get better with time.
[Image: City via Shutterstock]