Does a Bicycle Book's iPad App Show the Future of Publishing?

The dazzling Cyclepedia app demonstrates the digital potential for visual books.

Cyclepedia 615 cropped.jpg

Thames & Hudson

Publishers everywhere are scrambling to find the best way to transform ink on paper visual books into immersive media experiences. For the time being, most use readable PDFs from print files. This enables digital viewing, but offers little added value. Thames & Hudson, the U.K. and U.S. publisher, released the book Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design by Michael Embacher in August 2011 (Chronicle Books co-published it in the U.S.). Six months later, it followed up with the Cyclepedia: Iconic Bicycle Designs application, their very first immersive iPad app, which was featured on Apple's prestigious "New and Noteworthy."

It is indeed noteworthy, indeed captivating, for the manner by which content is made accessible as moving image. The beauty of the bike designs is enhanced by the ease with which the reader can experience 360-degree views of each bicycle—almost like being in a showroom. They can also track the cycle's evolutionary path along an illustrated timeline.

Since I publish books with Thames & Hudson, I wanted to learn more about how this app was created and what it means for other books, including my own past and future ones. Is Cyclepedia the perfect vehicle or model book for interaction, or will all visual books be looked upon as potentially viable? And what does this work-intensive technological engagement mean to the publisher's and author's bottom lines?

I asked Lucas Dietrich, Thames & Hudson's design editor, tasked with developing eBooks, about this new platform in general and Cycledia's unique challenges.

"Cyclepedia for the iPad seemed an ideal convergence of subject enjoying great popular resurgence with a design-oriented presentation aimed a target market we believed would be among the most likely to own an iPad," Dietrich said. "The nature of the subject—which is also fun—allowed us to explore a variety of interactive modes that could apply to other aspects of our program, from art and sculpture to fashion, design, architecture and landscape."

The subject is, in fact, fun and alluring. But did Thames & Hudson produce the app content as the book was being done, or was it necessary to go back and develop costly assets for the digital product? "The book was produced first and assets for the app added to the original content and animated through software design," he said. "But my ambition is to acquire projects that are conceived for both print and digital from the outset. Ultimately, this offers illustrated publishers like Thames & Hudson exciting new prospects, [and] we must retrain ourselves in order to do this effectively. The best apps are those not that take existing content augmented with new audio or visual or interactivity, but those [that] present a subject with an understanding that software is the medium, not the device."

For the average (or technologically backward) author, this prospect of thinking in terms of added interactivity can be daunting. I asked Dietrich to outline some of the distinct features that could not be possible in the printed form. Without hesitation, he rattled them off as if on a spec sheet. "Rather than having a contents page ordered by page, the bicycles are presented in one of several ways: alphabetically, chronologically, by country, by weight and by type (race, mountain, collapsible). Extreme zoom capability: Users can zoom up to 20x into each bike, giving phenomenal detail. User-defined animations, particularly the folding and unfolding of collapsible bikes. And, of course, video."

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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