Interview with Phillip R. Tiongson
Some weeks ago the iPad world was taken by surprise with a very impressing application. Biblion is the New York Public Library first application and was developed by Phillip R. Tiongson and his team from Potion Design.
I’ve reviewed the Biblion application for the Talking New Media website and, since I was so blown away by it I asked Phillip for a interview. He was so kind to find the time to answer my question and fill this post with an amazing amount of useful information for anyone that wants to ‘pick’ inside one of the most innovative editorial applications out there.
Digital Distribution: This is clearly a new approach on editorial content applications. Please tell us a bit about the project and the briefing you had from NY Library.
Phillip Tiongson: NYPL came to us with a challenge, how can a Library lead the future of reading? The Library traditionally has a role of collection and storage, but with digital technology, they can lead the charge in making their incredible collections accessible in a revolutionary way. Biblion in its print form was a scholarly publication circulated in the 90s to a select set of other research institutions. From the beginning, the digital edition of Biblion was targeted towards a wider audience, to provide inspiration for new scholars, and to show the relevance of the Libary’s holdings to today’s audiences.
DD: Each time a user launches the Biblion app, she gets a different photo cover with titles on both sides: one side for what has been read and the right side for articles that should be read. How did you got this idea and what’s your intention for this solution?
PT: From the first moment you launch Biblion, we wanted to take advantage of its digital nature, that unlike a print magazine, it can have a different cover each time. We wanted to show how the information that is first presented to you can be customized, to direct you to new stories you may have not read, and to show you a dynamic list of your reading history. We wanted you to feel like there is a surprise every time you launch Biblion, unlike most iPad magazines, where the cover image is either a movie or a still image that never changes.
DD: The amount of content on this application is impressive. Can you let us know how this content influenced on the UI design?
PT: The content (and the ideas for future editions) completely drove the form of the UI. Our idea was to give the content from the collection its shape BACK. When you go into the Library, and look at the books or the stacks, you immediately get a sense of the content that you might find inside a book, whether it is a short pamphlet or an encyclopedia. In their digital forms, they might both be represented by an icon, that gives them equal weight. We wanted to create a way for the content of each edition to create its own shape. When launching Biblion: World’s Fair, you see a set of 5 stacks, with content piled up behind, to show the five major themes of this collection. In the future, when new editions are created, you should see a variety of different shapes created by the different content contained in those editions. In face, each set of content will form its own unique visual fingerprint, based on the actual content of the edition.
DD: Biblion has two different “table of contents”, each one with its own visual identity. One for chapters and another for articles. Why have you choosen this solution?
PT: We wanted to provide users with many different entry points, so that visitors have several ways to gain intuition about the content contained within the digital space. The Exhibition Wall provides a visual space to explore the key images of the stories, while the Stack View provides a peek into the length and content contained within each story.
DD: The articles TOC is circular, without end. Why did you chose to design it like this?
PT: Unlike a book, a digital space does not have a natural beginning and end. We tried to take advantage of the properties of the digital medium as much as possible.
DD: Reading articles with the iPad on horizontal and vertical mode allows for different reading experiences (with the same content, of course). Can you tell us more about these differences?
PT: In many iPad publications, the horizontal reading mode is the same as the vertical one, with a simple change in formatting. When you are trying to recreate a magazine layout, this works well and seamlessly, but we wanted to take advantage of the fact that the reader may want to do two different activities, and optimize the display for each orientation. In Gallery View (landscape), we provide the visitor with a gallery view, full screen, dark background, of the incredible images stored in the collection. In Book View (portrait), we present the text front and center, and provide a more comfortable iPad reading experience with black text on a white background. Each view is optimized for a different activity, rather than simply reformatting the content.
DD: The visual coding for each article (the thumbnails with color coding for pictures, videos, etc) works very well. How did you come up with this solution and why?
PT: The visual coding was driven by the notion to give users entry points into the vast amount of content stores in Biblion. By indicating where featured images are, or archival documents, or video, users might visually search for a video to watch, or be in the mood for looking at documents, and be able to instinctually find stories that contain them. The color coding gives meaningful texture to the visual space, helping to show what things are, and point your attention towards them.
DD: Some articles have related content within Biblion, but you can only see this on vertical mode. Why did you chose this?
PT: Actually, this is something we wanted to address, and in version 1.5 (which will be coming out soon), we reveal connections in landscape mode as well.
DD: There are so many great ideas on this application. One that I love is on the vertical mode articles: when scrolling through the text, the subtitles remain on top until the next one scrolls in. This kind of content detail attention is great. What do you think other developers, app designers can learn from Biblion and your work?
PT: We wanted to push the envelope for what a reading experience can be on the iPad. Almost every iPad application currently available tries to replicate a physical publication. Most iPad magazines are formatted almost exactly like their print counterparts, and inherit many traits from what I call their Analog Heritage. They have a long history of expectations to fill, and advertisers to support, and so they are designed in a way to make their readers and advertisers the most comfortable. However the iPad is not printed paper, and I think that designers have so many opportunities to show new ways that it can be used, in ways that exceed the usefulness of a printed page. That is the challenge.
DD: The question I believe is on everybody’s head. The Atlantic Magazine posted a article stating that every magazine publisher should learn from your application. Are you planning on realizing a iPad publishing tool, based on Biblion, that allows other publishers to use the developed UI?
PT: We have had lots of inquiries, so who knows? I can tell you that we have already been talking with NYPL about the next issue of Biblion, and that its success has really brought a lot of attention to the NYPL.
DD: Regarding the editorial iPad applications panorama, what are the examples that inspire you?
PT: Eureka, the Times magazine is a great publication, both in terns of content and form. They are one of the few apps that use rotation for different purposes, like Biblion does. Our Choice by Al Gore is also a great publication, almost in that they took the completely opposite approach from Biblion. While Biblion strives to be multilinear and to show many different entry points, Our Choice is hyper-linear, every piece of content is laid out in an iMovie like timeline. But it is executed with Apple-like precision.
DD: It is my belief that the iPad app platform is lacking the presence of more indie publishers. What are your thoughts on this?
PT: I agree. I hope that more indie publishers will take the leap into the iPad, they may be surprised by the audiences they find.
DD: What is your advise for readers that want to try publishing on the iPad?
PT: Right now, there are not too many publishing platforms, per se, so to try publishing you really need to find an independent designer and developer who you can work with to create an app. The iOS platform is still very technical, so you need someone you can trust to express your vision in an interactive way.
DD: Thank you so much guys! Congratulations on the amazing work on Biblion. Any last thoughts you want to share with us?
PT: Thanks for the thoughtful questions. Biblion had over 100,000 downloads in the first three weeks, and still growing everyday. We would love for your readers to help get the application onto as many iPads as we can! The best part is that it is amazingly, totally free. So spread the word, and if you like what you see and want to see more, donate to the NYPL using the link in the app. That will allow us to do even more in the next edition.