The main premise of the column is that though both publishers and publishing designers want the iPad to save publishing, their interests are in fact somewhat divergent:
“What publishers mean when they say they want to save publishing is that they want to derive enough revenue from the digital distribution of their content to support the ongoing, profitable production of that content. What designers mean when they say they want to save the publishing industry is that they want to save their jobs. Or save design jobs. Or at least preserve the way that publishing designers practice design. Which is to say that they want to continue to create editorially specific solutions using a wealth of skills and tools — typography, illustrations, photography, and ambitious layout creativity — that very much depend on the wealth of publishers.”
Do I think this kind of art direction is possible on the iPad, or any other tablet device? The answer makes for the thrust of this first column. Basically, I make the argument that even if the iPad can save the publishing industry (an iffy proposition, to be sure) it won’t save art direction for the simple reason that art direction is too prohibitively expensive to survive in the world of digital publishing.
Not long ago I watched R.J. Cutler’s documentary “The September Issue,” a fascinating if incomplete look at Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the rarified world of fashion publishing over which she lords. In one particularly memorable twist in the film, the magazine’s editors decide to nix an already completed story that entailed a photo shoot with a rough price tag US$50,000. Poof, out the window. What was essentially an enormous sum spent on art direction — discarded.
Of course, not every publication operates at the expense level of a Vogue, but it’s safe to say that like Vogue most print magazines have very high operating costs. They spend far more money per content unit (article, photo shoot, interview, etc.) than Web sites do, and of course that includes the cost of art directing and designing the content.
Pointing out this disparity is not meant to demonstrate that Web publishers are cheap, but rather that print publishers have traditionally been quite flush. For decades, print publishing attracted incredibly robust advertising dollars, year after year, building whole empires as a result. That steady influx of healthy cash, combined with the relatively leisurely pace of publishing a magazine once or twice a month, or even once weekly, is what supported the remarkable run of visually stunning and culturally memorable publishing design that started in the middle part of the last century. Every article in every magazine looked different, looked gorgeous, because publishers could afford to make it so.
That’s over. For a million reasons, it’s over, but mostly for one reason: the Internet remade the economics of publishing. The evidence suggests that very, very few if any publishers are able or will be able to recapture those vertiginous levels of advertising revenues for digital publishing on the Web. And even if they do, even if they can turn the corner and evolve their business models on the Web, the generally ruthless economics of publishing in that environment has already made publishers unalterably averse to the significant expenses of art directing content.
The same will follow for the iPad, at least that’s my position. What we’re seeing right now, in the Popular Science app, and what we’ll see in the coming months from other ambitious digital magazine products, is a bubble for digital art direction that will burst quickly. I’m not saying that these magazines will all fail (well, I basically am, but of course I’m not certain about that). Rather what I’m saying is that these publishers are right now enthralled by the newness of the iPad and they perceive in it an opportunity that really doesn’t exist. The iPad looks to publishers like a fresh start in the world of digital, one more last chance to recapture the old ad dollars that the Web essentially dissolved. Even if those ad dollars return, what these publishers are wishfully ignoring at the moment is the fact that the kind of art direction these magazines require is very labor intensive and very expense-heavy — it costs a lot of money to art direct. It’s a value equation that worked for print but won’t work in tablet media, just like it didn’t work on the Web. When that realization dawns on publishers, they’ll stop paying for it.