Formless Content

There is a lot of interesting stuff happening to the page right now. The page is changing in so many ways – time-based media is making its way into book pages, reactive content, scrollable space, and a multitude of differing display devices make designing pages pretty hard work these days. How to design for so many possibilities? How to understand so many possibilities?

Craig Mod of flipboard makes a very compelling argument for two forms of page in an article he wrote for Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto : formless content and definite content. (This was the first book to be produced by PressBooks.)

Craig’s argument in a nutshell and in his own words is:

The key difference between Formless and Definite Content is the interaction between the content and the page. Formless Content doesn’t see the page or its boundaries; Definite Content is not only aware of the page, but embraces it. It edits, shifts, and resizes itself to fit the page [...] Put very simply, Formless Content is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas.

Craig argues that most book content we know is formless – the text can reflow into other containers without affecting the meaning.  It’s a really well-argued position and one that is in tension to the current design methodologies of book designers today. Book designers are taught to design contained space – books are a very definite context in which they work. Desktop publishing applications are built to meet this methodology and are designed to enable pixel-perfect manipulation within a strictly contained space. If the designed digital article does not exactly match the printed artifact then something went wrong. A lot of energy has gone into this process.

Formless design principles are uneasy to consider for traditional book designers – how can you design for a page that does not yet know its container? It is literally like asking a book designer to design a book without telling them the page dimensions.

As it happens, web designers have been thinking about page design too. For a long time now web designers have made pages that embrace differing containers – they have been working, at least in part, with formless content.

What is missing, however, are good tools for taking the web designer’s aptitude for working with formless content to enable them to produce books. A good tool set for designing formless books should not work with constrained page dimensions. It is tempting, for example, to think of working with a design environment with constrained page-like artifacts – think of Google Docs as an example. Could something like Google Docs with its digital, scrollable, yet fixed page size be a good starting point for some kind of design tool? Place layout and typographical controls on top of Google Docs and do we have the next book design environment?

I don’t think so, because it is exactly the kind of idea that is blinded by the media of the past and cannot accept that things have changed. We must design tools that enable book design for formless content. What those tools look like is a very interesting question and one which Aleksandar Erkalovic (Booktype lead dev) and I have been working on with students (Hannes Bernard and Aiwen Yin) from the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam.

Our argument is that the design of formless content is really a partially constrained environment, since elements within the page have some kind of relationship to each other. This is an argument web designers are familiar with when using design tools like position:relative – a rule which sets a relative position relationships between objects. Relationships can be constrained or shaped by rules which will be at least partially preserved when displayed in different contexts. The meaning is preserved by the relationship between the elements, more than by their relationship to the constraints of a page.

This is the reasoning behind Cascading Style Sheets – the design language of the web. It is rule-based design and even partly conditional. It is possible to express conditions in CSS even though it is not done that often. A CSS rule such as :

h2+p {page-break-inside:avoid;}

is a conditional CSS rule which will apply the style only when a paragraph follows heading 2 (h2) element.

Web designers know this kind of thinking, but book designers are going to have to let go of pixel-perfect design and enjoy thinking and designing this way. It seems like a simple idea but it takes a lot to overcome legacy. The legacy is so strong that designers are pretending the issue does not exist. There are tools now appearing and sold as design environments for iPad books. They give near 1:1 page relationship between the design environment and the final result. However, we all know what happens to digital hardware – it changes. What is true now will not be true 5 years from now, so the idea that an ebook is a contained space is very appealing to traditional book designers but it will be a short-lived myth. iPads might keep the same form for 5 years, they might not but they certainly will not keep it over the next 5-10 years. Better to learn how to design in the new way than be fooled into thinking you can bring all the old methods to a new medium and get away with it for long.

What we are working on now, is a way to meet the designers half way – a visual design environment which is used for rule and condition based design. Can book designers accept a tool like like this? Will web designers just step in and take the role of book designers? Its an interesting question and one we hope to have some more experience with soon.

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