Digital magazines and the search for inspiration

by WAYNE HOLDER, REDWOOD LONDON

June 2016

Incredibly, 2016 marks ten years since the launch of Monkey magazine, heralded in its time as the World’s first truly interactive digital magazine.

What made Monkey so ground-breaking at the time was certainly not its aesthetics nor its mildly questionable content. I look upon it now as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ of a creation, made up of disparate pieces of content scavenged from around the web:

With its staple diet of cars, girls, gags and football, it was aimed squarely at the Maxim, Nuts, and Zoo audience who had been slowly drifting away from print and gravitating towards the burgeoning online televisual channels like YouTube for its entertainment.

It had become evident that passive consumption of content was no longer enough to satisfy magazine readers.

Monkey’s initial attraction lay not in its aesthetics but solely in its unique ability to shine a dazzling light on the world of the possible.

Digital template

It was a proof of concept that many observers at the time suggested was the template upon which all future digital magazines would be built, and if you look at Monkey in the context of today’s digital publications you can certainly see its influence on the best of them.

Once the technical hurdles had been overcome the enduring challenge for publishers ever since has been to try to recreate the beautiful aesthetics of their print titles online.

However, due to limits on filesizes and download speeds designers would never be able to recapture the essence of what made print titles so visually appealing.

iPad brought change

An important milestone in the development of the digital magazine was the launch of Apple’s iPad in April 2010. With its arrival came a new form of magazine; the magazine app – the most notable of which being ‘Wired’.

Ironically, Wired’s print version had been founded to chronicle the digital revolution, so many designers have looked to Wired to be the flag bearer for design inspiration in the digital era.

Wired magazine is one of the best examples of a glossy tablet magazine app, developed by a publisher for an audience looking for design inspiration. 

Its editor in Chief, Chris Anderson wrote at the time: “The tablet is our opportunity to make the Wired we always dreamed of. It has all the visual impact of paper, enhanced by interactive elements like video and animated infographics. We can offer you a history of Mars landings that lets you explore the red planet yourself. We can take you inside Trent Reznor’s recording studio and let you listen to snippets of his work in progress. And we can show you exactly how Pixar crafted each frame of its new movie, Toy Story 3.”

The magazine app offered publishers and designers alike the promise of the nearest thing one could get to a beautiful print magazine in digital form. The apps were glossy, tactile, and portable.

Evolution of how we consume digital media

However, where once new developments in technology promised publishers the holy grail of the perfect digital magazine and unparalleled levels of engagement, recent years have seen creative ambitions reined in by changes in the way users consume digital media.

The rate of innovation in the mobile space has been staggering and the publishing industry has had no choice but to follow its audience into this area.

There is evidence of a growing trend toward larger phone screens, and according to Gartner this trend is slowing global tablet sales. It’s also estimated that by 2020, 80% of mobile traffic will come from smartphones.

This isn’t great news for publishers who’ve built their digital magazine strategy around tablet screens and desktops and I think it's a mistake for brands to pin their design strategy to particular screen sizes or devices.

It's a mistake for brands to pin their design strategy to particular screen sizes or devices.

The lines between phones and tablets are becoming more blurred as users adopt new devices, and the number of screen sizes and channels publishers need to think about is expanding exponentially. 

The only thing it matters is great content

All of this continues to highlight that the most important thing for publishers is to simply focus on making great content and to make it for where their users are - anywhere and everywhere.

User habits will continue to change, and technology will continue to follow consumer demands, but one thing will remain constant throughout the digital revolution and it’s that users will always value great content in whatever form it takes.

Users will always value great content in whatever form it takes.

Mazda ZoomZoom is a great example of a magazine that has continually strived to produce inspirational content that engages users. It has evolved successfully to keep up with its users changing habits, but has not lost the ability to create content that inspires its readers to play and engage with.

This inevitably means the digital magazine must continue to evolve and publishers must eventually let go of the idea that digital magazines should bear a physical resemblance to their print counterparts.

It’s no longer about just storytelling, but it’s about creating stories that engage consumers and inspire them to play.

Simplicity of ideas and execution is key. Any interactivity should enhance the natural appeal and longevity of the content and not be included just for the sake of adding bells and whistles. If these features don't  give your content an advantage – like making it more relevant, engaging, or useful, then think carefully about whether it’s worth the effort to implement them .

We’ve come a long way in the past decade since Monkey’s own bells and whistles were first sounded - and without doubt there’s still some way to go - but it’s refreshing to see digital magazines providing inspiration through content rather than simply dazzling with technology.