The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 205 | Function Dictates Form: On digital comics, tablets, and the lessons of Windows 8

Leaving Proof 205 | Function Dictates Form: On digital comics, tablets, and the lessons of Windows 8
Published on Thursday, October 24, 2013 by
Can reading comics on a tablet replace the print comics reading experience? Join us as we discuss a basic principle of user interface design and how the rise of the tablet has impacted the digital comics landscape.

One of the major concepts that underpins theories of evolution—both in the biological and the man-made design sense of the word—is that function, more so than lineage, dictates form (this can be expressed alternatively as “form follows function”). In animals for instance, birds and bats have evolved analogous forelimbs that enable sustained flight, despite belonging to two wholly different cladistic classifications. Similarly, history is littered with what can be termed as “parallel inventions”: similar, if not virtually identical, innovations that arose independently of each other in different parts of the world seemingly without any direct or even indirect contact between their originators, but are nonetheless united by designs informed by commonality in purpose. Some everyday examples of parallel inventions include materials like paper, developed separately in Ancient Egypt and somewhat later in Ancient China, and metal movable type, which was first invented in the early 13th century in the Goryeo Kingdom (in what is now Korea) and later engineered independently by Johannes Gutenberg in the Holy Roman Empire electorate of Mainz during the mid-1400s.

There are always exceptions to the patterns of biology and history of course, and at least for the latter, it doesn’t take much mental effort to come up with a list of products and technologies specifically developed for one purpose finding more popular, alternative uses. In the main, however, putting “form” ahead of “function” in design, particularly when talking about modern concerns such as interface design, can be a recipe for failure.

Take, for instance, the flap over Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system’s interface and the halfhearted updates/concessions found in Windows 8.1. When Windows 8 became available to the general public late last year, the reception was mixed. While hailed as the first decidedly touchscreen-friendly iteration of the popular OS, it also earned the ire of many long-time Windows users who found its new tile-based default interface (dubbed the “Metro interface”) confusing and inefficient for computers with keyboard-and-mouse set-ups.

After enduring a year’s worth of criticism over its user interface design decisions, Microsoft released an update, Windows 8.1, which, among other minor improvements, allowed users to bypass the Metro interface and boot directly into an icon-based desktop and returned the missing “Start” button, addressing two of the most common user complaints about Windows 8. The reprieve from complaints was short-lived, however, as the changes were largely cosmetic in nature. The “Start” button was back, but what Microsoft didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just the button that users wanted, but also the simple-but-elegant one-click access to applications, files, and system tools that the classic Windows start menu offered.

Windows 8 earned the ire of many long-time Windows users who found its tile-based "Metro interface" confusing and inefficient for keyboard-and-mouse set-ups.

Windows 8 earned the ire of many long-time Windows users who found its tile-based “Metro interface” confusing and inefficient for keyboard-and-mouse set-ups.

More baffling however, is Microsoft’s misreading of their user base. When Windows 8 debuted, office managers all over the world groaned at the sight of the Metro interface, seeing in it the sizeable cost of retraining staff who’d been using an icon-based desktop interface for years and even decades, stretching all the way back to the days when Windows was a humble graphics-based file manager for MS-DOS. This is not an insignificant concern for businesses. Enterprise device management firm Fiberlink revealed earlier this month that an astounding 98% of its clients are upgrading their Windows XP computers to the similarly icon-based Windows 7 instead of the newer, tile-based Windows 8. It’s all well and good that Windows 8 is tuned for use on touchscreen devices like tablets and smartphones (in its Windows Phone 8 version) but that doesn’t really mean much in the business and home office environment, where the bulk of computer-based work is still done sitting at a desk, staring at a (non-touchscreen) monitor, typing on a keyboard, using a mouse or a pen-and-tablet as an ancillary input device. It seems like Microsoft was so focused on nailing down the touchscreen-friendly form for Windows 8 that they forgot who actually uses Windows, the primary environment where they use it, and what they use it for.

So what does any of this have to do with comics? Well, for one thing, Microsoft’s interface designers could have probably learned a thing or two about the interplay between device form factors, device inputs, and UI design just by looking at how the digital comics landscape has changed over the years.

The common refrain among comics readers some fifteen, twelve, ten, or even five years ago when it came to digital comics is that the reading experience just couldn’t compare to the “real thing” of print comics. Beyond the very obvious difference (i.e., having to sit in front of a screen to read the former), there are also some more subtle factors that are significant just the same.

Take page orientation, for example. The majority of comics, for the longest time, have been created and printed in a portrait orientation and continue to be printed in portrait orientation. The overwhelming bulk of computer monitors, on the other hand, display visual information in a landscape orientation. One of the biggest drawbacks that I found with Marvel’s CyberComics and DotComics, two of the publisher’s earliest attempts at digital comics, was the incessant need to zoom in and out and scroll up and down to read the comics—remember, we’re talking about the late 1990s/early 2000s here, when your typical PC monitor was probably in the 15”–19” range and screen resolutions rarely topped SXGA standards—while so much empty space was wasted on the sides of the screen because of the difference in orientation between the comic page and the computer monitor. This was a clear case of the device’s form (the monitor’s landscape orientation) conflicting with what it was being used for (presenting visual information originally rendered in portrait orientation). The alternative, which is to partition the upright pages into horizontal, comic strip-like segments, is as unsatisfying and problematic a solution as forcing readers to zoom and scroll. As comics writer and digital comics advocate Mark Waid stated in a recent interview with PC Magazine:

Mark Waid: [We at Thrillbent are] not interested in selling excerpted panels. A lot of the time people will carve pages in half and throw those up into a browser.

PCMag: That can prove problematic when a penciler goes with an unorthodox page layout.

Mark Waid: Right. The problem with most digital comics is that you’re simply taking print material and adapting it. It’s like reading through a cardboard tube. It’s the modern day version of pan and scan.

As a related point, this relationship between the native orientation of the display device and the media it is displaying could also perhaps help explain why webcomics gained such an early and strong hold on the Internet comics readership: most webcomics take after the Western comic strip tradition and are oriented horizontally, requiring little to no zooming or scrolling in order to be read on most typical computer monitor sizes and resolutions of the late 20th/early 21st century.

Given the same width and resolution, a comic book page originally intended for print and adapted for viewing on a monitor (left) requires scrolling and or zooming to be viewed in full (the grayed out portion of the image is the part of the page that lies "outside" the monitor viewing area), whereas a comic book page designed from the outset for viewing on a monitor (right) can be viewed in its entirety at full, readable resolution without the need for zooming or scrolling.

Assuming fixed width and resolution, a comic book page originally intended for print and adapted for viewing on a monitor (left) requires scrolling and/or zooming to be viewed in full (the grayed out portion of the image is the part of the page that lies “outside” the monitor’s immediate viewing area) compared to a webcomic page designed from the outset for viewing on a monitor (right), which can be viewed in its entirety at full, readable resolution without the need for zooming or scrolling. Why is scrolling such an important issue? See the results of the study by Mangen, et al (2013) mentioned below.

It is no coincidence, then, that digital comics have risen in popularity alongside the growth of the tablet markets. Today’s smartphones and tablets can variably and automatically display content in either portrait or landscape orientation, requiring nothing more complicated than the user simply giving the device a quarter-turn clockwise or counter-clockwise, neatly sidestepping the problem of how to optimize portrait-oriented comics for reading on landscape-oriented display devices. As seen in the infographic below, 80% of the comiXology users who responded to a poll on Facebook last month indicated that they read digital comics on tablets, making mobile devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Apple iPad far and away the digital comics reading medium of choice compared to computers (44%) and smartphones (36%).


The majority of respondents in a Facebook poll conducted by comiXology indicated that they read digital comics on tablets. [Source: September 2013 general population survey data provided by comiXology]

This isn’t to say that reading comics on a tablet is a perfect substitute for reading print comics. There’s the notion that the physical act of holding a piece of bound print material, turning pages, and feeling the print material’s heft and texture add a lot to the “total experience” of reading, and that these can’t be easily replicated in a digital reading context, even with a tablet similar in weight and size to a print book or magazine. If that sounds like so much touchy-feely pop psychology mumbo-jumbo, let me point out this recent study (Mangen, Walgermo, Brønnick, 2013) conducted in Norway that found that readers comprehend and remember more when they read something in print compared to when they read the same thing on a screen. As the researchers state in their conclusion (emphasis original):

… reading linear narrative and expository texts on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension than reading the same texts on paper. These results have several pedagogical implications. Firstly, we should not assume that changing the presentation format for even short texts used in reading assessments will not have a significant impact on reading performance. If texts are longer than a page, scrolling and the lack of spatiotemporal markers of the digital texts to aid memory and reading comprehension might impede reading performance.

Now granted, the art in a digital comics page may provide spatiotemporal markers that don’t exist in the plain text used in the Norwegian study, but it doesn’t require much of an intuitive leap to get to the assumption that these markers may not be as effective as those that exist in printed comics art.

After a lengthy teething period that saw missteps like Marvel’s CyberComics and what Waid describes as the “cheap animation” and “neither fish nor fowl” product that is motion comics, digital comics can now offer a comparable experience to print comics when read on modern tablet computers, a device with the form factor and capability to display digital versions of print comics the way they are meant to be displayed, at least in terms of page orientation. Given how the mind processes visual and somatosensory stimuli differently based on the medium however, I think it’s safe to say that the digital comics reading experience will never fully recreate and replace the print comics reading experience, nor should it: Digital comics may be at a disadvantage compared to print comics when it comes to the reader’s comprehension and retention of the reading experience, but digital technology also offers creative and distribution opportunities that print technology can’t match, and it is in the interest of the comic book medium’s continuing cultural relevance that creators take full advantage of what both digital and print have to offer.

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