7 Lessons in Magazine iPad App Design

A Master Class with Creative Director Robert Newman

I fully intended to finish this post about creative guru Robert Newman’s digital design dharma last month. But an app conspired, my first (we just launched WebMD the Magazine iPad app in the App Store. Whew.).

Before we started, I consulted the master. Reader’s Digest creative director Newman—former creative director of Real Simple and design director of Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, Details, and New York—is app-smart. He’s been at it a while. His team just released Reader’s Digest’s 14th app issue for the iPad and fifth for the Kindle Fire.

What wise words could he offer our team of editors and designers as we shepherded our print magazine into the iPad depths of digital space?

Newman was kind enough to impart these seven been-there-don’t-do-that lessons of iPad app design and development.

Lesson 1: Let It Read

Newman: You want to design something that takes full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities. People like to read on iPads. So the first thing you have to do is make the reading experience really easy and really pleasurable. And if there’s one crucial mistake that people make on their apps it’s that they don’t pay enough attention to the text font and the size and the width—and how it navigates.

We looked at The New Yorker as sort of role model. We said, “What’s the magazine that people are likely going to spend most time reading as an app?” We saw that they do a one single white column and the font is really generous in size. Of course, ours is different, but we made it really easy to read.

The New York Times iPad

Lesson 2: Put it on the Wall

Newman: We are always, always looking for assets, which is all the extra stuff: videos, slideshows, book excerpts, and so on. We'll start talking about those when we start planning out the issue. So that's a first step. And then the second step is when the print issue gets put out on the wall. You have the editors there, the photo person, the designer—breaking down what's there and how it can translate digitally. This is a really good process to get the whole team involved. You're all right there and you kind of feed off of each other.

We sit in front of the wall and we literally walk through the whole issue and we say "What will this be on the iPad?" A lot of times it's just, it's going to be what it is. It's just a page fit the best way you can. But then somebody might say "Oh that could turn into a slideshow," or "That could turn into something with push buttons or we can rearrange that and make it something different," or "This is so funny, I wish we had a video for it," and then someone looks for video online.

It's probably more reactive than would be ideal, but it's just the way it has to be.  And honestly most people don't have the money and the resources, even if you could be totally proactive, you couldn't afford to do it or get it done anyways so it's not so much of a fall-off. We could sit around months ahead of time and plan out all of this amazing stuff, but then who can afford that? So, in a way, I think being reactive is probably not bad because it falls within the reality of the staff and resources and budget that most of us have, you know? It forces you to be more creative.

Lesson 3: Add Bells and Whistles—But Not Too Many

Newman: Take advantage of the goodies. An iPad app allows you create this sort of dual experience where you can just go through and read and look at the pictures. Or you can dive deeper in and get all this rich media and resources. Given the parameters of budget and how long it takes to download, we try to layer in as much extra stuff as possible. You know: push-button interactivities, slideshows, video, hotlinks, additional material. We try to do it both ways and make it simple enough that you can just read it, but also give enough opportunity on every other page for some other kind of experience.

Me: And you say "every other page" because you don't want to overwhelm with interactive choices?

Newman: Yeah, you want the experience to not be stressful. It's the Real Simple thing. People don't want 1,000 choices. They want you to do a certain amount of editing and curating for them. Otherwise, it's too overwhelming. And you're dealing with a really wide range of user experience: you have people who have never used an app before or never had an iPad before. And then you have people who are geeks. You have to satisfy both of them. I think if you do too much, the newer people who probably are the majority are just going to get overwhelmed and say, "This is just beyond the kind of experience I want,"—so you have to balance it.

Lesson 4: Departments Are Hard, Features Are Easy

Me: So, app features are the opposite of print?

Newman: Yes. Redesigning the features is the easiest part of it. In the app, the features are basically long columns of type broken up by pictures. Unless it's a really complicated package or something, the huge bulk of the features go down pretty fast.

It's the smaller stuff that tends to have to be redesigned. Like the departments with three or more things on a page. We're committed to do a certain amount of interactivity with Readers Digest, and to make the design look very vibrant and a little more dynamic than a magazine, they take some redesigning.

Lesson 5: Digital Design Changes Print

Newman: Here's something interesting: Our tablet design has started informing the print design. That happened in two ways. The first way is that we just came up with a more dynamic design, with more vivid colors, so we realized we should layer this back into the magazine. Now you're starting to see stuff that fits the design of the tablet popping up first in the magazine.

Reader's Digest

The other thing is that there's so much emphasis on functionality and usability in the iPad. Everything is functional, even if it has lots of extras in the app. And we really look specifically about how's the person going to use this page, what are they going to think when they get to it, what's the first thing they're going to do, where's their finger going to go, what are they going to think is going on in this page.  And so that started translating back to the magazine as well, where we're really saying: you know when somebody gets to this page, what are they going to think, what are they going to read, what are they going to look at first? That's been a really good exercise.

Lesson 6: Orient Yourself

Newman: Another thing to think about with the iPad is orientation. Do you want to do two orientations or one? I think people are pretty split right now about whether to do both. Some people just do horizontal—a few, not too many. And a good number of people just do vertical, like Martha Stewart, Reader's Digest, Esquire, some of the Hearst magazines. Time Inc. magazines do two. A lot of the Condé Nast magazines do two.

Now, the problem with two is that you have to do two layouts for each thing. The very first day I got here, the very first meeting we had about our iPad app, I remember telling them, "You know, you guys, you can only do it one way because you don't have enough people here to do both."

Structurally, you just can't handle double the layouts. It'll drive you insane. So we just did it one way and it cut the workload in half. Besides, I just like it one way.

Actually, now you can view photographs and videos horizontally and the rest of it vertically, which you couldn't when we started. So, one of the big arguments for doing it in two orientations is gone. And for the reading experience, do you really need two versions? If it's Wired or Popular Mechanics or if it's something where you're cutting edge and the audience demands total geekdom, then there I think it's worth it. It's what the readers demand.

But do most readers demand the ability to turn it two ways? You have to decide for your own magazine. What is it worth?

Lesson 7: Respect Your Cover

Me: When you introduce an interactive element on your cover, how much do you change its design as a whole?

Newman: We don't change it much. That's a whole discussion, but I think in general the trend is to basically stick with the same cover. I see the logic behind it. I think from a newsstand-subscriber-new-issue-out perspective, it makes a lot of sense to have your digital covers match your print covers, especially as the digital circulation goes up. I think people want to know that it's the same magazine you see in the newsstand, in the media, that their friends have—that it's the new one. So the cover serves as always as a sort of branding thing, and I think it's confusing if you change.

Not a Lesson, But One Last Question: Will Apps Replace Print Magazines?

Newman: Certain kinds of magazines are doomed because of the nature of the magazines, like the newsweeklies. But I think that has less to do with the app and more with how people want their information.

You want to watch The New Yorker because I think they're really smart. There will be people who stop their New Yorker subscription because they'll read it on their iPads. And you're going to get subscriptions from people who wouldn't normally subscribe to magazines.

I think The New Yorker's strategy is they're going to get the next generation of people who are 20 now, who'll end up just reading it on the app—but there will also always be a lot of people who want the paper copy.

Me: Bottom line?

Newman: I don't think apps will take away print. For more of renowned creative director Robert Newman's design dharma and his daily postings of amazing magazine covers current and past, follow him on Twitter: @newmanology and on Tumblr: http://newmanology.tumblr.com/.

[Main image: Ethan Hain]