Exploring Stories

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I finished my thesis project, Same Moon, and graduated from my MFA program! Time flies, especially when you’re no longer pulling all-nighters.

My thesis project was a two-year process, and it was incredibly challenging, but it was also so much fun. Possibly my favorite part of this multifaceted project was designing an interactive ebook, which I called Exploring Stories, that used stories to allow a traveler to explore a famous historical place.

Exploring Stories - LaunchThe concept for Exploring Stories was, whether visiting a site or simply exploring from the armchair at home, users could read stories that were geotagged to specific spots within a map of the tourist destination (Angkor Wat, in the case of my demo), and explore the rich heritage of the place, told from many different perspectives and times throughout history.

The stories represented the physical space, and were navigated via a map rather than a traditional, linear Table of Contents. Users could bookmark their favorites, or explore other stories from the same time period or perspective. Users could also add their own stories to the map, to share with others or keep private in a sort of journal.

For users who were actually at Angkor Wat, their position showed up on the map so the app could be used almost as a guide, and users could access the stories near to them, and stand in the places the story was referencing.

Check out the demo video I put together below:

It was so much fun for me to explore what reading could be, and really push the limits of what defines a book or a reading experience. I love that the interactivity of ebooks or apps allows for new kinds of interaction—in mine, the user gets to go exploring, choose their own adventure and even add their own stories to the “book.” And the interactive abilities allowed me to build a tool that enabled users see the world from different perspectives, and provided an engaging portal to access history and make it come alive, rather than be lost in the past.

exploringstories-map1 exploringstories-map2  Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 11.18.53 AMexploringstories-bayon exploringstories-train

I was inspired in a lot of ways by The Silent History app, which I wrote about in a previous blogpost, and by an amazing service called Maptia, where users tag blogposts to a map of the globe. If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend checking both of them out!


Designed for Children

I’ve written a number of posts on design for adult and young adult books, but I’ve yet to feature any books for younger audiences. However, I recently discovered that a few famous graphic designers have made their own children’s picture books, which approach youthful subjects with really beautiful composition and color. One of the most notable authors is probably Paul Rand, who illustrated books written by his wife Ann Rand.

Ann & Paul Rand

Paul Rand is perhaps best known for his logos for ABC, UPS and IBM, and some of his advertisements and posters. While Rand spent most of his life designing for adult audiences, his aesthetic has a simple, colorful, bold look that works really well in children’s books.



The Rands’ children’s books include the three I’m sharing below, Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words, I Know a Lot of Things, and Little 1. The books have different topics and slightly different visual styles, but are all recognizably Paul Rand’s aesthetic. The text of the books also has a lot of fun word play, from the number puns in Little 1 to playfully illustrated homophones in Sparkle and Spin.


Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words

This is probably my favorite of the bunch, as it talks about the power and importance of the written language. Despite the simple text, you can tell that the author is very aware of the significance of the written word in our society, and the playful typographic layouts demonstrate a masterful grasp of letterforms and type. Aesthetically, the book design uses a bright, limited color palette and large blocks and shapes of color to fill the pages. And you’ve got to love a children’s book that breaks out the word “tintinnabulate”! Continue reading Designed for Children

Reading the Web

Reading on the web can be annoying. Websites are often crowded with additional features, graphics, ads, navigation, alternative content, links, and who knows what all else. Every little thing pulls at your attention, drawing your eyes away from the text you are trying to read.

This is the polar opposite of reading a book. In a book, you get the text, perhaps a page number and chapter title in the corner, and that’s it. Even reading modern ebooks, for example on the kindle, you usually still just get text and some information tucked in at the bottom about how far through the book you are.

So what’s up with the web? Why can’t web designers control their impulse to put anything and everything on the page next to the text? The answer is, they’re starting to, and we can see this in both the NYTimes redesign and Medium, the latest venture of Twitter cofounder Evan Williams.

NYTimes.com Redesign

The NYTimes.com previous site design was just as bad as anyone in terms of loading up the page with distracting extras. Below is a screenshot, where I’ve highlighted which part of the screen is actually taken up by the article (including the article’s picture):

Old NYTimes Design

Compare that to the new NYTimes.com design, where they’ve recognized how much better of an experience it is when the screen isn’t completely cluttered:

NYTimes Redesign6Because they still need to make money from ad revenue, there is an ad at the top. But notice how I could say “an ad”—there’s just one. And there are still links to share the content online and go to other sections, but they’re kept to strictly defined areas that don’t compete visually with the article. Typographically, the article title now grabs your attention as the most important text on the page, and the social media icons are now all the same color so they’re less visually distracting. And now look at what happens when you start reading the article:

Continue reading Reading the Web

The Story Is Starting! A Review of The Silent History

I am more excited about The Silent History app than any other app I’ve seen in a long time. Ostensibly a novel, The Silent History is an ebook for iPhone and iPad that unfolds only over both time and place, transforming the reading experience from a passive experience into one of participation and exploration.


A collaborative project with many contributors, it is in part the brainchild of Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s. Apparently Horowitz has brought his expertise in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a book or a magazine into the digital realm. It is hard to know yet how successful he has been in pulling this off, as the book has only released three days of content so far:


So how exactly does The Silent Histories work? Good question! The Silent Histories is the only book I’ve purchased that comes with an extensive FAQ section.


I’m still discovering exactly what it is myself, but I think at its most basic it is a novel that is being released in segments. The whole story line is broken up into six volumes and within each volume, individual segments will be released one each day until that volume is finished. So far in the three segments released I’ve been introduced to Theodore Green (a new father), Nancy Jernick (a new mother), and August Burnham (a doctor specializing in Childhood Disintegrative Disorder). The book’s description says it will track the emergence of a new generation of children with a communication disorder that no one has seen before. In fact, at a basic level it reminds me a bit of the book Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear that also deals with a whole generation of children being born with unusual characteristics.

But the book is not merely a serially published novel. In addition to having content released over time (referred to as Testimonials) the app/novel also has content released only in certain places. Referred to as Field Notes, these additions to the story line are tied to a physical place and are only available when the reader is in close physical proximity to that place. The app’s full description of field notes is the following:

“The Field Reports are short, site-specific accounts that deepen and expand the central narrative, written and edited in collaboration with the readers of the Testimonials. To access and comprehend a Field Report, the reader must be physically present in the location where the Report is set. Reports are deeply entwined with the particularities of their specific physical environments — the stains on the sidewalk, the view between the branches, a strangely ornate bannister, etc — so that the text and the actual setting support and enhance each other. Each of these reports can be read on its own, but they all interrelate and cohere within the larger narrative.”

What is perhaps even more intriguing than the fact that they are tied to physical location is the fact that readers can edit or add to them. Reading The Silent Histories is in fact a participatory act.

Will The Silent History forever change what it means to be a book? We’ll see. The news media is going crazy over it, and of all the apps I’ve seen that play with the possibilities offered in new ebook technology (and I’ve looked at quite a few), this is by far the most amazing and exciting. So what is my answer? It quite possibly could change the definition and experience of reading a book. And I’m looking forward to it.

What do you think?

National Geographic & AFAR: Travel in the iPad World

As I continue to explore the world of iPad publications I am fascinated by the range of formats and features that magazines are offering in their iPad apps. This post takes a look at two travel-related publications—the app for the well known and beloved National Geographic, and the app for the new, gorgeous, and award-winning AFAR magazine.


  • National Geographic does the best job I’ve seen yet of integrating animation and video into their interactive magazine. This perhaps should be unsurprising, considering the range of resources and material they already had at their disposal prior to the creation of the iPad app.
  • AFAR appears to be essentially just scanning in their print magazine for consumption on an iPad screen. While that fails to provide an enhanced experience, it is probably a much easier and more affordable option for a magazine that was only launched three years ago. However, I was impressed with the multiple, intuitive and convenient methods of navigation, and the text-only option.

Continue reading National Geographic & AFAR: Travel in the iPad World

Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design 2

Between my love affair with books and my life of design, I am always keeping an eye open for cool book covers. Here’s another selection of interesting children’s book covers, this time focusing on the use of unusual materials with the six Penguin Threads covers and the Hitchhiker’s Guide DIY Sticker Covers. Enjoy!

Penguin Threads:

Penguin Threads: Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden

Penguin Threads is a beautiful series of books where the cover art was created through embroidery. The first three books—Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden—were commissioned from Jillian Tamaki (read her blogpost on this project). They detail is absolutely beautiful, and I feel like sitting there and just staring at these covers for a half hour, absorbing every little thing. It’s almost a little bit overwhelming! And while I love the color palette and design, I must admit the Emma cover reminded me a little bit of Milton Glaser’s famous poster of Bob Dylan, which is an amusingly strange connection to make.

Jillian Tamaki embroidering

Penguin made an effort to make the covers as enjoyably realistic as possible by both embossing the thread design, and on the inside of the covers showing the back of the embroidery:

The Secret Garden: Interior cover with the back of the embroidery

The Penguin Threads series is described on their website: “Commissioned by award-winning Penguin art director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Threads series debuts with cover art by Jillian Tamaki for three gift-worthy Penguin Classics. Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design that will appeal to the Etsy(tm)-loving world of handmade crafts.”

And for those who have already seen and loved these first three, there’s good news. Penguin has continued the series with three new titles—The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, and The Wind in the Willows—this time with embroidery illustrations by Rachell Sumpter. If anything, these compositions are even more crazily detailed; I’m still trying to decide if I think the chaos in the Little Women cover, inspired by embroidery samplers, is fantastic or too much. Despite the chaos, they are definitely still gorgeous book covers. Tempted to get the whole series!

Penguin Threads 2: The Wizard of Oz
Penguin Threads 2: Little Women
Penguin Threads 2: The Wind in the Willows

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy DIY Sticker Covers:

I first stumbled across these on Faceout Books’ great blog on the process of book design (read their post on Hitchhikers). These Hitchhiker’s covers, designed for the books’ 30th anniversary, have a simple concept: the title and author are printed at the bottom of an empty image of the universe. Inside the cover are a sheet of awesome/ridiculous stickers that relate to the book’s plots in various ways, and readers are encouraged to make a “DIY” cover by creating their own layout and design. Totally awesome. What a great way to get people, especially kids, to get excited about reading (and hopefully get hooked on a great series of books!).

As if it was needed, these DIY covers come with an added bonus. They have been incorporated into the ebook iPhone app, so for those of you into reading your books digitally, you can still have fun playing around with these awesome interactive covers. Unfortunately these seem to only be available the UK, as far as I can tell. Hopefully it will be available for American audiences soon!

Hitchhiker's iPhone app with DIY cover

Future Magazines!

Well, I officially live in the future now. In the airport waiting for the plane ride home from spring break, I bought the recent version of Vogue to flip through. And by flip through, I mean flip through on a screen, because I bought it on my iPad! It did take quite awhile to download on the airport wifi, and in fact it was only thanks to a flight delay that I managed to download it all. I spent hours in flight reading the articles and looking at pictures, like always, but also on checking out what Vogue has done to bring its beautifully designed print magazine into the digital world.

In general I was impressed with how well Vogue has created a very nicely laid out digital magazine, which worked well in both horizontal and vertical layouts. I do think that they could take more advantage of the new digital medium though, both to create new ways to interact with the content and also to enable some of the traditional interactions with a physical magazine. Below are my observations in more detail.

Suggestions for Improvement:

  • DOG EAR: I found myself wanting to bookmark pages to return to. Not just to mark the place I left off, but more to mark my favorite images or articles. With a physical magazine I dog-ear probably a dozen pages that have either a look I like, or something I want to look up later on the internet or show a friend, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the digital version.
  • MAGAZINE CLIPPINGS: Similarly, one of the great things about a magazine is the ability to cut out an image or tear out a page, either to collect, show someone, perhaps even collage. It would be great if Vogue provided someway to clip images, say pin them to Pinterest. Or have a way to create a collage of your favorite looks, like the new app Mixel.
  • DANGEROUSLY EASY: I think Vogue is losing a great opportunity by not linking pictures, especially advertisements, directly to items in store websites. Other apps, like the Anthropologie app, are already taking advantage of the ability to put links anywhere on the page to make it dangerously easy to buy something you like the look of.

Job Well Done:

  • INTERACTION: For their article on antidepressants Vogue opened with an image of carefully arranged pills in a variety of shapes and colors. As you looked at it, some of the pills slowly appeared and disappeared, adding a pleasing little detail that was enjoyable to notice and experience for a minute. Unlike old blinking advertisements that were some of the most annoying visuals to ever come to a screen, the slower speed and subtlety of this image were enjoyable, and a smart use of the new capabilities available to designers. Although I don’t think it’s appropriate for every page, I do wish they’d used details like that more.

  • While less of a delightful detail, I thought it was smart of them to include a few embedded slideshows in their article on the Ritz Paris. It enabled them to include additional pictures and captions without cluttering up the page. However, I did get a little confused about what I was supposed to click in order to go through the images, so that interaction could be made a little bit more intuitive.
  • LAYOUT: I was impressed with the wide range and versatility of page designs that seemed to effortlessly switch from horizontal to vertical orientations. Vogue had a wide variety of layouts, with plenty of pictures from full bleed photographs to smaller images with cut-out backgrounds. In some of the image heavy layouts, they had the text in a single narrow column that scrolled while images on page were pinned in place (with a small word to indicate the scrolling interaction).
Horizontal Layout
Vertical Layout
  • TYPOGRAPHY: In general the type was clean, elegant, and on brand. The beautiful crispness is of course thanks to the iPad 3’s beautiful display, but it does add a sense of elegance. The crispness was lost a little bit in the advertisements, but I assume that was due to image quality that was kept as low as feasible to keep the file from being even bigger than its current .4 gigs. I liked their use of a variety of drop caps to add variety to the typography. On the other hand, I liked that they had section headers that stayed in the same place and size throughout the magazine in both vertical and horizontal layouts, which added a nice continuity. I’m definitely curious as to how they make all these layouts.
  • NAVIGATION: In general I thought their method of navigation worked pretty well. In addition to small indicator words for scrolling, a few full page layouts that were perhaps less obviously scroll-able had a well placed arrows that matches the ultra light sans serif to help indicate when a scroll was needed. For many of the longer articles the scrolling snapped to specific page breaks instead of having unbroken scrolling. The overall method of navigation was to flip from one story to the next by swiping sideways, and to flip through the pages in a story by swiping up and down. It makes sense, but it’s also so ingrained to flip a page sideways that I often found myself accidentally switching stories when all I wanted to do was flip pages.


Angel Island and Its Ghosts

On Monday I turned in the final version of my “iPad App” for type class (aka a pdf with the same dimensions as an iPad screen)—mine was on Angel Island. It was really fun to create, in part because it required me to take the ferry over to Angel Island twice and spend a morning/afternoon walking around, enjoying the beautiful, peaceful island, and taking pictures.

I wanted to talk about the history of Angel Island, which is really quite fascinating and remarkably unknown. I focused on a few specific areas of its history:

  • Chapter 1 was on European discovery (the first European ship in San Francisco Bay, the San Carlos, anchored off of Angel Island)
  • Chapter 2 was on Native Americans (I tried to focus on the Coast Miwok tribe, which used to frequent Angel Island, but also discussed the Mission Dolores, and the essentially genocide during the California Gold Rush)
  • Chapter 3 was on Chinese Immigrants (Angel Island was home to an Immigration station, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island, which dealt with a lot of Asian immigrants during a time of American racial discrimination against them. Many other immigrants came through that station, but I focused on Chinese)
  • Chapter 4 was on recent history as a California State Park

This did skip several interesting episodes of the island’s history, but I did what was feasible for the scale of this project (~30 pages). My goal for the aesthetics was for it to feel a little bit historical, ghostly, and official/bureaucratic, in order to emphasize its role in history. Also, keep in mind it was for my class on Experimental Typography, so it is a little bit on the unusual side. I’ve included a small selection of the 34 pages below. Enjoy—feedback appreciated!

(all work copyright Rebecca Wright)

XKCD—Design Humor

My friend Sarah pointed me towards this great XKCD comic the other day. So true!

From http://xkcd.com/1015/

I also really enjoyed this one. It’s more related to ebooks (and Hitchhiker’s Guide!) than design in general, but hopefully you still enjoy it:

From http://xkcd.com/548/