The production of an ebook starts with an internal tension: what design decisions should we make knowing that when the ebook is on the device, the user will be able to change absolutely everything? The alignment, the line spacing, the font size, the background color. This is something that makes publishers desperate, as they often want the digital book to be as similar as possible to the paper book. An impossible task that even goes against the nature of the ebook and its potential as a product: the ability to adapt to the needs of the user. A dyslexic reader may choose a sans serif typeface and left alignment, a blind reader may choose to have the device read the book aloud.
A well-designed ebook will be one that has clean, semantic HTML, so that the markup makes as many formatting choices as possible. In this regard, Laura Brady, of Epub Secrets, states that the three main pillars of ebook design are responsive design, interoperability and the use of fonts designed specifically for screens.
Says Karen McGrane: “With the rise of mobile devices, we need to abandon the fantasy that we have any control over the presentation of content. That’s history and it’s not coming back.” We can’t know what devices our book will be read on or exercise control over how it will be read. This is a hard thing for anyone coming from the print book to understand. We must relinquish control over how content is displayed and entrust the heavy lifting of design to semantic markup. Some tips for good responsive design are to understand the difference between absolute and relative units to avoid strict definitions (whenever possible) and to make use of good stylesheet practices. This is impossible to achieve with an export from InDesign: just because the book looks good on screen does not mean it is well constructed. ePUB files generated in InDesign will always need a thorough cleanup to remove “junk code”.
Interoperability is a simple concept: it is about ensuring that the eBook works well on all devices. To do this we must avoid getting overly creative with CSS, as what looks great on one device or application could cause a disaster on another. How to achieve this? By keeping the code as simple as possible and testing the ebook on as many devices and apps as we can.
Finally, we must keep in mind that screen reading needs are different. Font size is just the tip of the iceberg. Print fonts are made for paper: they have areas on their various faces that are designed to accommodate ink compression or dot gain. When these typefaces are used on screens, their blocks of text can appear pale, thin and difficult to read. Details such as fine lines or serifs can hinder legibility. The way to ensure proper legibility is to use a professional font. Monotype and Creative Cloud will be our best allies.
While it’s not as simple as an innovative page layout or interesting typographic contrast, ebooks can be beautiful and well-designed. It has as much to do with what’s under the hood as it does with how the content is presented. An ebook that uses sound semantic markup is designed with screens in mind, works well across the spectrum of devices, and is responsive to screen size, meets all the requirements of good ebook design.
Source: Laura Brady, “Ebook Design Is Not an Oxymoron,” in EpubSecrets, 2018. Translated and adapted by LivrizTeam.