Does screen-size matter? With print, publishers have to agonise over whether to choose a tabloid, berliner, A3 or A4 layout, but it was your choice. Now in a mobile age, publishers have to give up control of the reading process. Things like screen size is in the hands of Apple, Samsung Loading... and Amazon Loading... and their gadgets.
Last week, Apple further complicated the matter by finally deciding to accept the inevitable - given the success of rival Samsung's S series - and increase the screen size on its latest iPhone. Bad news for designers: No longer can you just design for the same 4in screen format you’ve been used to for the last four years.
But Apple’s decision is part of a trend that has seen the vast majority of mobile manufacturers steadily increase the size of the screen on their flagship devices, as this table of three of the leading manufacturer’s devices shows:
For tablets it's a less simple story. Apple has stuck with the 9.7in display for each of its iPads, while other manufacturers have experimented with different sizes.
And unlike with smartphones, if anything tablets are getting smaller, with Amazon heavily subsidising the Kindle Fire, and Google Loading... ’s Nexus 7 flying off the shelves on launch. Because of their low cost, they are also likely to enlarge the market for tablet magazines and other content, and Apple is rumoured to be on the verge of releasing its own 7in tablet.
To add another layer of complexity there’s the "phablets" such as Samsung’s Note, a device which sits uneasily right in the middle of the tablet / phone divide, but which has proved surprisingly popular among consumers.
Does bigger mean better?
The problem for publishers is that screen size defines so much about how people content, yet it varies massively from device to device. That poses some significant issues for people like David Hicks Loading... , digital art director at Future Publishing (who wrote for TheMediabriefing about interactive vs page-turning magazine apps in January).
Hicks is in charge of creating, developing and launching interactive and app versions of his company’s publications, including the UK’s top-selling iPad magazine T3, which involves grappling with different screen sizes on a regular basis. He tells TheMediaBriefing:
“For T3: iPad Edition, the team creates the one build to iPad dimensions, and distributes that to all iPad and large Android tablets. Its not an ideal scenario, but we are able to do it without much extra work for the team.
But that process Is very different to how Future tackles smartphones: “For phone screens, we’re learning that magazine layouts need to be quite regimented and with just one or two font sizes/weights.
"Also, the level of interaction needs to be simpler. Faster to use, more accessible and quicker to digest. Phones are for ‘on the move’ consumption, so the content delivery and how it’s presented should reflect that.”
It's changing all the time
If anything here is clear it's that neither manufacturers nor consumers have decided what makes the perfect screen size for tablets or phones. That means publishers have to adapt to consumer technology trends rapidly, without pushing up costs dramatically.
Hicks says: “The next challenge is how we create layouts for smaller tablets, iPhone and smartphones, without adding huge costs. A whole different set of assets may need to be commissioned – for example, video content, images, different format, spec, and so on. Some automation in the production process definitely helps, and also adjusting the existing workflow to accommodate these new editions.
“The same design rules apply – legibility, readability, easy and fast access to all content. Ensuring that the magazine’s design identity is consistent, and that the editorial content is identical across all editions is even more important and just as challenging.”
What's the ROI of specific platform development?
When is it actually worth designing an app for a particular format? It’s a question a lot of app and web designers will be asking themselves about the iPhone 5.
Do they stick with the iPhone-optimised versions of their existing content that work across the five older iPhone models in circulation, or do they focus on the newer device which is likely to be hugely popular and get into the hands of some of the most valuable customers? According to Hicks it will be a bit of a balancing act.
“Initially, designers will probably create one solution for both, early on. But at some point we’ll need to work out a solution for both iPhone screens, or the user may see black bars above and below the content on the ’5′. It may simply be the case of tweaking each layout to fit each resolution and compromising a little on the design.
But things will get easier
Long term, Hicks says the tools will develop to make it easier for publishers to design for a range of different screen formats at the same time. Until then, publishers have to keep on their toes and make sure they are up to speed with how their content is being displayed to their customers.
“I would hope that the majority of editorial teams across magazine publishing will be able to adapt their workflows and create pixel-perfect magazine solutions for most devices within the next few years. But it will take time to adjust. Publishing in general needs to be more adaptive and ready when new platforms and devices come our way.”
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