Monthly Archives: July 2013

Rethinking the College Textbook

Visual Anatomy & Physiology

This book is unlike any other college textbook you have ever seen.

As I sit here in my local Starbucks, I see several college-age students struggling to absorb difficult material. At one table a young lady is working with an older mentor, trying to understand advanced accounting principles. The more of it I overhear, the more confused I become. Two other students are tackling economics over a table full of charts and graphs while muttering phrases like “government oil” and “maximum revenue”. This has me thinking about just how hard learning can be.

We have been designing textbooks for over a decade now. And not just any textbooks, but anatomy and physiology textbooks. I look at these beautiful and outrageously detailed books and wonder what it would have been like if one of them had mysteriously appeared on the bench of Leonardo da Vinci back in the fifteenth century. He would have been astonished. His notebooks reveal a mind hungry to understand both the construction and function of the human body. Here it all is, Leo, in one colorful package you can hold in your hands. Here are the answers to your many questions as well as countless more you don’t even know enough to ask.

VAP Sample Spread

This is a typical spread in Visual Anatomy & Physiology.

Put that same book in the hands of today’s students and I suspect they would be less impressed. It’s funny how as we are designing textbooks, the potential users of a book become something of a hovering presence. We learn a little about this audience by way of information that flows upstream through the publishers. But much of what we “know” about them comes from our own imaginations, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We constantly and reflexively ask ourselves how both students and professors will react to what we are doing, and our answers are largely driven by our own experiences both learning and teaching.

I would love to believe that today’s students are motivated by a burning curiosity about the subject — and I’m sure that some are. But the much more common phenomenon is a kind of triage attitude. Our primary A&P book represents a single two-semester course. Nobody in their right mind would assume a student could really learn all of the dense and detailed information in this 1,200-page book over two semesters during which he or she is probably taking 3-4 other challenging courses. So those students constantly ask themselves “what parts of this do I really need [to pass the course] and what parts can I skip.”

This poses an interesting challenge for the designer. Does this element I’m working on fall into the “must have” category, or will it end up “on the cutting room floor?” And if it is in the skippable category, why is the student tempted to skip it? Or perhaps more germane, if the student is going to skip it, why put it in the book at all?

The answers to these questions are complex, and have a lot to do with one very peculiar fact about textbooks: this big-ticket item is purchased by the students, but almost never selected by them. Professors select the books, but they don’t use them to learn the subject (that happened a long time ago). Students don’t select their textbooks, but the book selected for them is their only real shot at learning the subject. Think about this for a minute. From our vantage as designers this creates a set of peculiarly mixed motivations. For most products, attention directed toward pleasing the end-user will strongly motivate them to buy the product. With textbooks though, the end-user — the student — just isn’t part of the marketing equation.

Well, you might say, professors want their students to succeed, don’t they? If they see a feature that will help their students, won’t that motivate them to select a better book on the student’s behalf? I’m sure this does happen. But I also know that if my college professor was responsible for picking out a car that would be perfect for me, the chances of her choosing the same car I might choose for myself are infinitesimal — even if she is really trying. Even worse, there are some professors who just aren’t trying. Some believe “hey, learning this stuff was hard for me, why should it be any easier for today’s student?”

So, what happens when the goals of the true purchasers are in conflict with the goals of the true end-users. Did you really have to ask? The purchaser always wins.

But let’s go back to our perspective as designers. All of this is peculiar, and somewhat depressing, but in the end it just makes for an even greater design challenge: how do we make a textbook that is an irresistibly attractive package for the professor, but still treats the student like an important customer.

We saw that goal as an exciting challenge, and we designed a book to meet that challenge head on. Visual Anatomy & Physiology, published by Benjamin Cummings (Pearson’s medical and scientific imprint) is unlike any other textbook you have ever seen. A standard textbook features running text with occasional images used to reinforce a point visually, but our design for this book turns that model inside out. There is no running text. All the material is divided into concise two-page units built on rich, informative illustrations.

This new approach provides a much more memorable and engaging experience for the students. The short modules allow them to tackle information in discrete chunks. Each module provides immediate review questions, with more review questions on the section and chapter levels to reinforce the material.

The initial feedback from some professors was basically “no way you can cover everything in a book like that.” But it’s all there. This is not a dumbed down or remedial book, and to drive that point home, the principal author would sometimes bet professors that they couldn’t find a topic in their favorite A&P texts that was not covered in our book. No professor ever won that bet.

Despite some resistance, lots of professors were immediately excited about this new approach. But what about the students? Even as we were developing the design, Pearson was already testing it. The most frequent response from students seemed to be “when can you do this for all my textbooks.” And the numbers showed why. When “Visual” was used, formerly C students became B students and formerly B students became A students, almost across the board. That’s a win-win right there.

Adobe Creative Cloud: sad, sad UI inconsistency

Adobe print dialog comparison - AI and PS

The Illustrator (top) and Photoshop print dialogs might well have come from two different planets.

Like most designers, I spend an awful lot of my day looking at software applications designed by Adobe. They’re chock full of software goodness: powerful across the board, and sometimes (can you say Photoshop) still able to amaze. But there is one area where these applications drive me crazy. The User Interface design jumps all over the map, leaving me with the feeling that no Adobe development team actually talks to any other.

Much of this confusion was born out of a shamefully lazy decision that Adobe made years ago. They simply got tired of styling their applications for specific platforms. So they created their own interface conventions that were neither Mac-like nor PC-like. I think these “third-way” interfaces (yes there have been several iterations) make Adobe products look like something an amateur threw together with some kind of clumsy kit. But it gets worse–much worse. Adobe is far from consistent in using their own invented conventions, and they often mix in standard operating system elements for no obvious reason. The result is just icky.

One of the advantages that Adobe has always claimed for their “suite” approach is cross-application consistency. Well, I’m going to have to call out the emperor on that one. The current iteration of the suite (Creative Cloud) still feels like a UI hodge-podge, and this has been an obvious problem for years.

Check out this very detailed Adobe UI Gripes blog if you would like to review this sad history.

I recently decided to write Adobe about this. I’m not foolish enough to think that this will make any difference in what they choose to do. But I do think getting this off my chest might help me a little.

Please end the chaotic user interface inconsistencies within the Creative Cloud. This has long been an issue with the Creative Suite, but it is worse with the CC applications when I I think it should really be getting better.

I suggest someone sit down in front of all the applications (like we have to on a daily basis) and look at the interface basics: open and save dialogs, printing and export dialogs, palette scroll bars, etc. etc. ad nauseam. they jump all over the place in terms of style. Some Mac system style. Some your own home-grown interface style–actually, SEVERAL versions of your home-grown style. The very same button (say the “Print” button) will be different sizes in different applications. Some have the text centered vertically on the button, while others have the text misaligned, riding low on the button like something an amateur might do.

This makes the CC suite just feel messy. Why don’t you guys buck up and do it right. With the CC you are asking even more money for your products. For that will you please give us at least interface consistency.

By the way, it feels like a cheap shortcut that you are not willing to give your apps the appropriate chrome for at least the two major platforms (Mac and PC). In my ideal world, the CC applications on my Mac would look like Mac applications. But if that is too much to ask, please, please, make them at least consistent among themselves.

– Jim Gibson

Buying J.K. Rowling’s new book: is print now ‘just how we did it before we found a better way’?

When the news broke last week that J.K. Rowling was the true author of a title ostensibly written by one Robert Galbraith, it kicked off a scramble by her fans to locate a copy. Since even Robert’s publisher didn’t know his true identity, there were very few copies to be had. The bemused TV stories about the whole furor featured “on-the-street” interviews with Rowling fans in which they bemoaned that there were “no copies available anywhere.”

The Cuckoo's Calling - paper and digital

Paper is scarce and hard to come by. Digital is infinite.

A quick trip to the iBookstore on my iPad revealed that, on the contrary, there were lots of copies available–at $9.99 no less. An infinite number of copies, actually.

It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the benefits of delivering books as electronic media. Being in the book design business, I am painfully aware of the effort that will go into the production of hundreds of thousands of paper copies of “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” The paper manufacturing alone is a massive task. Printing, warehousing, and shipping, shipping, shipping. Think about how many times this material is physically moved from one place to another. Trees shipped to a paper mill, paper shipped to a printer, books shipped to a warehouse and from there to a bookstore, books carried home, and then likely moved from one home to another for the duration of a lifetime. Apropos just the first step in that process, I’m reminded of this thought from architect and environmental visionary Bill McDonough:

A tree makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy’s fuel, makes complex sugars and food, changes colors with the seasons, creates microclimates and self-replicates. Man looks at that and says ‘let’s knock that down and make paper out of it.’ (paraphrased)

Bill also suggests that it is getting harder and harder to see anything as beautiful if it is complicit in destroying the planet.

Has the time come to fully embrace digital books? Should we be teaching our children to think of the e-book as the default form and those paper-based products as the way we had to do it before we figured out a better way?

For a designer who has spent the bulk of his career focused on perfecting those paper-based forms, this can be a scary thought. Nevertheless it seems both inevitable and in many, many ways, good.

Musing and amusing …

My wife Pam is an avid knitter who has adopted the personal motto “never not knitting.” This is an apt description of what seems to qualify as both a life goal and a moderate compulsion. The results are great, though. She’s happy and our home is gradually filling up with luscious knitted goods.

It doesn’t take much self reflection to realize that I have a similar compulsion that might best be described as “never not thinking” or “never not analyzing.” It can be a useful trait, but it is disturbing to realize that I don’t have the option of dialing it back. What I have learned to do is to sometimes step back and laugh at myself about this trait (and many others).

Thus the name of this blog. (a) it is first and foremost a place to capture part of that constant stream of internal “musing.” I hope it will also be an opportunity to sometimes laugh at my own foibles.

–Jim Gibson