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No More Ugly Textbooks

by Angelynn Grant

Printed textbooks have a visual voice that has grown over time. Science textbooks have traditionally looked a certain way and art history books another. Even within the sciences, math and physics books have a different visual flavor than, for example, biology books. But in general, within Inkling, there is one textual voice—the message and the visuals vary. This common design across the Inkling UI makes Netter’s Clinical Anatomy just as inviting as Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. “We walk a balancing act between presenting a consistent overall Inkling reading experience and a ‘branded’ experience within each book. I’m not sure how this nets out in terms of the reader’s experience overall, but my suspicion is that readers and reading habits are malleable and the reading environment tends to recede into the background after a while. We try to make the environment as quiet and as regular as possible, to keep from interrupting a user and surprising them in a negative way.”

Campbell Biology (left) lets students take a closer look at 48 three-dimensional molecules, 35 hot spot images that zoom through different layers and over 250 interactive diagrams. Students prepping for an exam have multiple study tools like quizzes and concept checks built into every chapter. Cross-platform access means students can track how they’re doing from their laptop, PC or iPhone. The Professional Chef (center), Ninth Edition, by The Culinary Institute of America is available for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, PC and Mac, designed to feel native on each device, with adaptable and dynamic content. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (right), Fifth Edition, by Philip B. Meggs includes 44 slideshows, built-in flashcards, Guided Tours of different examples, high-resolution images great for zooming in on, and interactive quizzes. Cross-platform access means students can use in whenever, wherever.

Incorporating some of the original book’s style was also important in order to provide wayfinding and a communal experience between the print and the digital users. “We’ve found even within the constraints of the Inkling platform, there are still creative ways to convey specialized content. In terms of the visual flavor, we generally respect the established style of the print book, including color palettes, typographic treatments and iconography, so that two students in a class, one using the Inkling version and the other the print edition, still feel like they’re reading the same book. We preserve page numbers too, so that the Inkling user can quickly jump to the same page as the print user.”

The reader has control over the text sizes and a range of tools to personalize their experience. As they go through, they can quiz themselves. “Readers can highlight, take notes and add bookmarks. We turn many illustrations into interactive exhibits like Guided Tours or Test Yourself. In each of those exhibit types, the text labels are removed and the user can step through the information at their own pace. In a Test Yourself, for instance, the labels on an anatomy illustration are replaced with buttons, so a student can test their recall of a diagram. Their quiz results are saved, as well as the searches they make while reading. We have plans for users to make their experiences with the content even more customized, so stay tuned!”

The Inkling style or something similar (continuous vertical scrolling; personal notes and bookmarks; social commenting) works equally well for other readable content beyond textbooks and they have launched an interactive e-book publishing platform called Habitat. So far, though, plans to produce an app for the public similar to the iBooks Author is on hold. “We’ve talked about using the Inkling platform for different types of content and publishing needs, so this may be something we look into down the line. For now, we’re working on getting more developers and publishers using our Inkling Habitat environment to create books for Inkling. We launched an early adopter program earlier this year and have been supporting a number of partners creating their content on Inkling. We’ve worked with brands like Frommer’s, where we translated the look and feel of their Day by Day travel guide series to Inkling—it still feels like the same series, even though the platform is quite different.”

Frommer’s California Day by Day, First Edition, by Mark Hiss and Garth Mueller. Designing
complex content to reflow for the very small screen of the iPhone was a whole new challenge.
Of particular importance to Inkling is feature-parity across devices, so that, for instance,
you can use the weather widget on your phone as well as on your iPad or laptop.

With two degrees from MIT, including a masters of science from the Media Lab, a breeding ground for, among other things, forward-thinking typography and design, as well as an MFA from UCLA's Design Media Arts program, Cho was clearly the right hire early on. “Our founder Matt and I got in touch through a pretty random connection, so I feel very fortunate. It was a great fit for me, given my background working on digital reading experiences at the MIT Media Lab and on interactive museum exhibits for a variety of clients. I’ve also been able to draw on my most recent work experience, which was working on user interfaces for consumer electronics clients at MOTO, a design and engineering consultancy.”

For print designers and design students eager to try their hand at e-books and other creative solutions for digital reading, Cho recommends the basics. “A good understanding of typography, color and hierarchy are all design skills that translate well from print to digital. And having some skills in programming (that is, coding sites in HTML, CSS and Javascript) is important as well in bridging the gap.” CA Grant
Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.