Arthur Attwell

Is there such a thing as an ebook designer?

Here in the ebook-making world there’s a lot of to and fro about how much design matters when text is getting reflowed in different screens and applications, from tiny phones to 22-inch LCDs. Will book designers have jobs in a publishing world dominated by ebooks?

A few years ago when Mobipocket dominated the ebook market, I despaired for ebook design because the Mobipocket Reader’s typography defaults were (and still are) so horrendous. When the epub format came along, offering us the chance to embed fonts and control formatting with CSS, things started looking up for ebook design, as long as epub-capable ebook readers actually supported CSS properly. Most don’t, sadly, once again leaving the appearance of most ebooks in the hands of a reading device’s default settings. While users can change these settings, only a type designer would know how to make the most of them.

This will absolutely change. Human beings want pretty things and this drive will be realised in ebooks before long. Designers will of course work with the new constraints and priorities of the medium. (Those constraints/priorities might include the fact that a book’s overall structure becomes more important than in print books, where structure can be reinterpreted spread by spread; covers have to be appealing at thumbnail sizes; design isn’t spread-based; and so on.) Writers and editors may also have to change the way they write. We’ll see.

What will emerge is an overlap or compromise between ebook creators (mostly from publishers) and ebook reading software (mostly from software companies). Ebook creators will include their preferred design elements in their ebook files (for instance, in a CSS file in an epub ebook) and the reading software will take its cue from that. The software will also apply its own design principles, according to the device it’s used on, often overriding the creator’s preferences. (The hugely popular Stanza reader for the iPhone is making steps towards this already, but has a way to go. Apple has been providing great typography by default for years, thanks largely to Steve Jobs.)

Good ebook reading software will apply great default typography to even the rawest of texts. Where that software can read CSS (or other styling code, but mostly this will be CSS-based), the software will take the creator’s design preferences into account.

So designers will have lots of work to do — on the ebook-creator side and on the software side. And hopefully, in time, consumers will gravitate towards ebooks (and providers of ebooks) that are well designed and towards software that provides great design.