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No More Ugly Textbooks

by Angelynn Grant

For today’s college students, who grew up with clicking and zooming as integral a part of reading as page-turning, digital textbooks are a natural step forward. Amazon reported over a year ago that digital books were outselling printed books. The textbook market, which initially lagged behind the general market, is now catching up. Although online textbook platforms like WileyPlus and CourseSmart have been around for awhile (and some of which have companion mobile and tablet apps), their UI experiences vary widely and many of them are about as aesthetically attractive as their print counterparts—which is to say, not attractive at all. Let's face it: Textbooks have a homely history.

Atlas of Anatomy, Second Edition, by Gilroy et al. The broader real estate of the computer screen opened up new ways to display content, such as the progress wheel for assessment. Students can track how they're doing, leave notes and still see where they are in the book on the left-hand side.

But not for long. The Inkling app for the iPad and iPhone makes textbooks as pretty as the iBook Winnie the Pooh—or as pretty as any elegantly designed app like Paper or even Cut the Rope—and just as feature-rich. Launched in the summer of 2010 by Harvard-trained engineer and former Apple employee Matt MacInnis, the San Francisco-based startup has jumped into this fast-growing field, bringing clean design and typography and a fresh approach to reading. Forming relationships with top educational publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson, Inkling created an innovative, interactive app that presents even the driest of higher-ed content in a way that is engaging, fluid, collaborative and personal for each reader. In May 2012, they launched an HTML5/CSS-based platform for web browsers at, opening up their books to a wider audience. The iOS and browser apps are free with registration and users can view free sample chapters for every book they offer. We asked creative director Peter Cho to walk us through some of the unique challenges with reinventing (rather than digitally mimicking) what Gutenberg started.

In Inkling, the traditional page structure has been replaced by a more organic, linear flow. The reader scrolls downward to new content, with gentle hops between sections dubbed “cards.” This is a fundamental difference from page-turning in a printed book, page-swiping in an iBook or Kindle book or page number-clicking in other online e-textbook systems. Reaching the end of a page in a printed or digital book always invites the temptation to stop, get distracted and lose the train of thought. The smooth flow of content in an Inkling book has the subtle effect of helping a reader continue on while internalizing a chapter or section as a whole. “We spent a lot of time early on evaluating different options for left-right and up-down scrolling,” notes Cho. “I agree that reaching the end of a traditional page invites the reader to pause. Sometimes this can be a good thing, especially when the content has been crafted so that the page break coincides with a moment of reflection in the content. Other times it detracts from the experience as a reader is forced to hold on to the content from the previous page as they approach the next one. Unless each two-page spread in a print book or ‘screen spread’ in a digital book has been designed consciously, those page breaks are incidental and a result of the ‘container.’

The Professional Chef (left), Ninth Edition, by The Culinary Institute of America. Features like shared notes must be useful across content categories. In cookbooks, for instance, Shared Notes are a great way to see how others have modified and tweaked recipes, creating a community in the book. Frommer’s Costa Rica Day by Day (right), First Edition, by Eliot Greenspan. Static images like maps become interactive and engaging when transformed into Inkling blueprints like Guided Tours, with relevant pieces of content embedded inside. You can even zoom in on the volcano photo within the poptip.

“We felt strongly in initially designing the platform that the environment shouldn't artificially dictate the structure of the reading experience. Instead, the structure should result from the content itself. In Inkling, you are reading ‘cards’ of varying lengths based on natural content breaks. Cards are stacked into chapters, chapters into units and units into books. The outline view for a chapter gives a quick summary of the cards, including second-level headings and image and video thumbnails. When you’re reading a card on the iPad app, you also have a visual progress bar on the left we call the ‘spine’ that shows the length of cards in that chapter so that you can see at a glance how far you are in the current card and how far along you are in the chapter overall.”

The clarity of the Inkling interface is enhanced by an effective use of Chronicle Text, a sturdy serif from Hoefler & Frere-Jones based on nineteenth-century Scottish book faces, and Whitney, a sans also from H&FJ purposely styled for extended reading. Along with readability, technical issues for both an app and a browser required a careful consideration of typefaces. “We embed the font families in the Inkling app itself on iOS, which involves memory constraints, so we have to be conservative in the number of faces, styles and variants. We’re also licensing the fonts for use on the web, so we face other technical issues there too. We consulted with Jonathan Hoefler on type options and are happy with our choices so far.” 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.