TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Lost in (virtual) space

We are regularly asked whether our flagship book Trees, maps,
and theorems
is available in PDF or any other electronic format.
No, it isn't, and if you own a copy, you can probably guess why:
it was designed to be viewed two pages at a time, an approach
little compatible with the limited screen size of current viewers.
Recently, a reader (Erik Reinertsen) asked me about the e-book
movement, and in particular whether I think “there is potential
in interactive media to be so much more effective than static
media that it warrants the extra cost and difficulty of creating it.”
A difficult question: ebooks have definite advantages, yet I find
I am skeptical, perhaps because I value visual structure so much.

The concept of e-books certainly appeals to me for the reduction
in weight and in storage space that it allows. I am reminded of it
every time I take the plane—whether it be about reading material
in my carry-on bag or the copies of Trees, maps, and theorems
in my checked luggage for participants of our training programs
or simply for the now traditional raffles at the end of my lectures.
I remember the liberating feeling of feeding my CDs one by one
to my computer for inclusion into iTunes, and I definitely enjoy
having so many musical pieces at my fingertips everywhere I go.
When I look at my bookshelves, I often wish I could do the same:
take all my books with me (at no additional weight), just in case.

Trees, maps, and theorems

When I read a book on screen, however, I often feel I am missing
something, namely visual structure. For essentially linear books
such as novels, structure matters little; the division in chapters
does little more than provide preferred places where to interrupt
the reading, and even a table of contents usually fails to provide
a global view unless the many chapters are clustered into parts.
In contrast, for material that is best absorbed in a structured way,
a readily visible structure is an asset. Given a physical document,
potential readers typically flip through the pages before reading,
to form a first idea of it and (many tell me) “to see how long it is”;
at any time, they have a better (a physical) idea of where they are
in the book, too. On many websites, I feel uncomfortable because
I do not quite know where I am and what I might thus be missing
in the body of information presented to me. Yes, there are ways
to help readers navigate websites and other on-screen material,
but it is never quite the same as the physical world if you ask me.

Admittedly, ebook applications could do much more than merely
display on screen a static page originally designed to be printed.
They can ease navigation with hyperlinks to figures, other parts
of the book, or external references. They go beyond static views,
as with interactive figures, video segments, or zooms in and out.
They can even escape the tight boundaries of the physical page
(though not those of the viewing window), as with large “pages”
that can be scrolled, zoomed, or otherwise navigated (à la prezi).
Still, while many of these features can add value if used wisely,
I doubt any of them helps convey the visual structure effectively
(if anything, some of them obscure it). For example, a top-level
table of contents (chapters only) with the second level (sections)
listed on demand sounds brilliant in theory, yet for some reason
I am not convinced by what I have been given to see in practice.

Perhaps a clear visual structure requires a static representation,
at least static in the sense that a given item is always displayed
in the same relative position—a little like irrelevant menu items
being grayed out but not taken out, or like submenus appearing
on the side of a menu, not between items (pushing them apart).
A clear visual structure requires a fine control on the positioning
of all items on the page: a design choice, not a viewer's decision.

Traditions, templates, and group leaders

The current ebook movement may be driven by the novelty of it
or by benefits such as portability or apparent ease of navigation,
but it may not fulfill every promise it seems to hold. I do not see
ebooks as necessarily more effective than (well-designed) books.
Still, should we not give ebooks a chance? Our recent booklet on
Traditions, templates, and groups leaders (a free PDF download)
was such a test for us. We designed it on a landscape A4 format,
so that individual pages could be viewed more easily on a screen.
But did our readers view them on-screen or did they immediately
print the 16 pages of the booklet? I would be interested to know.

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