You are all in publishing!

ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.

So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”

A few hands were gently raised.

Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”

Every right hand in the room shot up.

“You are all in publishing,” I explained.

Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.

But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.

27 thoughts on “You are all in publishing!

  1. Is it wrong, then, to say that a wide area of knowledge (whether it’s in design, development, copywriting, etc.) can actually help rather than hurt people working online today?

    Also: who doesn’t work online these days, at least in some way? I would really like to shake their hand.

  2. I could not agree with this more heartily. The vocation of web development and design must be considered in the historical context of publishing. The sooner we embrace this concept, the sooner we will be pushing forward toward a better maturity in the brave new medium.
    Special areas of proficiency are to be expected and encouraged, but we really should continue to understand what we do in the larger context of the publishing (digitally or not) world.

  3. Don’t worry, Jeffrey: when you asked who’s in publishing I raised my hand. =)

    Tech and publishing have been intimately intertwined for over 500 years, when Martin Luther invented mobile content by translating the Bible from Latin to German. And the spread of that new device (the book) through Europe was as voracious and rapid as the spread of the iPad today.

    So bah Zuckerberg — the content-driven social network was started by Gutenberg and Luther. And, before them, by painters of petroglyphs in caves 12,000-15,000 years ago.

    (my SXSW session yesterday, scaled back to a blog comment)

  4. You definitely fulfilled the promise of your title for the session. One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks was when I told a friend of mine about Readability. She is on the board of our college newspaper, and she hadn’t heard of it. What’s more, it was useful for her because she was going to NYC to a convention for journalism, and it gave her a topic to bring up in the conversation. I, for one, am really excited about where the web is going in terms of publishing.

  5. Sure, if you’re building Web sites with narrative content or some othe text that could also be published on paper. But interactive applications centered around data manipulation, or configuring automated systems — my day-in, day-out job (at the moment) — that’s Web design, too. The parallels and historical ties to publishing are significantly weaker when you’re talking about Web applications. It really should have been called the Awesome Internet Publishing Panel. In any case, I enjoyed the talk. Those four speakers could have read the phone book for three hours and I would have enjoyed it.

  6. The proliferation of content in the past 20 years is thanks, in-part, to the dramatically lowered barrier to entry of a single person managing everything. As web designers and developers we have as much control over the form and content of our medium as an entire team of people working at a traditional paper-print publishing company.

    Now, just because we can do everything doesn’t mean that we should be doing everything.

  7. Actually, there’s a lot of web design that isn’t publishing. Among the early uses of the World Wide Web was to remotely controlling telescopes. E-commerce is only publishing in so far as it replaces mail-order catalogs, take-out menus, and the like. And there are plenty of web applications that have no equivalent in publishing: email front-ends, Facebook, workflow management, help desks, etc.

  8. Nice sentiment, but I think it belies a classically narrow view of the web. Yes, much of web work is publishing. But if you write software that’s deployed via the web (and not monetized via ads), are you really in publishing? That’s a stretch. It’s just that most of the classical web business models have been “publishing” (or at least “media”) one way or another, insofar as they rely on ads and/or are primarily about disseminating content—both things the web has been fairly good at, but not the only things for which it is useful or used.

    Is Dropbox in publishing? Or 37signals?

    Yet they still care about design, on the web.

  9. David Leppik and jrk: you bring up good points. The word “publishing” is simultaneously very narrow and very broad this in context.

    Is Facebook publishing? Absolutely, in that it empowers its users to be publishers—that is, formal announcers of content—when they choose to be. Same with 37signals. Dropbox is software, but the portion of the software that uses the web is still publishing, whether public or private.

    I definitely agree that there are pockets of web design that would be tough to classify as publishing, but they’re few and far between. I’d wager that a hefty portion of web designers are struggling with or helping to solve the problem of distributing content to a particular audience.

  10. I’d have to agree with Jeffrey — but with this spin. If you work in a company, especially if you work in sales or marketing or customer support or product development, you are a publisher. Or you should start thinking about yourself in this way. You’re a web developer or designer? You need to think about and build systems that enable and engender a publishing mentality.

    The strong relationships with your customers that you are trying to cultivate is all about being available, when and where they want you to be, to talk and answer questions. It’s conversational marketing & sales. And to be good at it, it takes the dedication of a publisher. Timeliness and schedules and sharing content on a regular basis and meeting regular deadlines. That’s what drives great customer service and builds brand loyalty. Sure, it makes it easier if you have a stunning product, but you’d be surprised how far the personal touch can go.

  11. Great call out. We’ve been hitting “Publish” for 10 years in Flash. Now we need a standards based WYSIWYG to hit it in or we’ll be forced to learn how the code works.

  12. I really appreciated this post: anything that encourages access to publishing gets my thumbs up. I ran a little festival recently and featured a panel discussion called “Honk If You’re the Publishing Industry”, about how internet technology is reducing the barriers of entry to the publishing market and what this means for the production of literature. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

    I also really appreciated Kristofer’s comment about Gutenberg and Luther. I didn’t know that about Luther, but I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the Second Coming of the Gutenberg Revolution. I have some fears about how social networking will ‘corrupt’ human relationships (and I’m almost a digital native – born in 1983), but when I think of these in the context of the history of communication I become less worried, so: thanks Kristofer.

    I also agree with Eric: I’ve been working in print publishing for nearly ten years, reading blogs for about five years, and publishing my blog for nearly two. (Yes, ‘publishing’ my blog.) The reason I shied away from reading on the internet for so long was all the drivel – a not uncommon complaint. As online publishers we have a duty to our readers that I think is often over-looked in a way that print publishers can’t afford to do. The barriers of entry have lowered, yes: it’s cheap to publish a whole novel online. Unfortunately the quality-control barriers have come down with those barriers.

    I hate to sound like an elitist because, at heart, I’m a populist, but I think it’s really important that we look to the traditional models of print publishing for an idea of how to set up an infrastructure that’s going to ensure the quality of our (online) products: employ editors, basically. We owe that to our readers as much as if they were reading our products on paper.

    Thanks for the post – it really ticked something over in me.

    PS @Thom: touché.

  13. Kenny, I find it remarkable that you responded to this ‘platitudinous’ post with an even more platitudinous post on your Tumblr: to say these riddles are everyone’s is like saying everyone has an arsehole; to encourage your community’s engagement with the problems is far more useful than alienating people with a disparaging, sarcastic and vaguely insightful post.

    What was the point of your post? Other than to illustrate you had come to these conclusions before someone else. Other people (that is: people who are not you) have benefited from this post. Who will benefit from yours? You: your ego. Well done.

    And “a sonnet is a song without music”: did you lift that directly from @Thom?

  14. (Apologies up front that the following is a bit disjointed–on a Blackberry and sick. So.)

    I think some good caveats have been made, but one that’s not been made, I don’t believe (though touched on): some things which seem like publishing really aren’t–they’re more like conversation. Conversation has always been ancillary to publication, and sometimes facilitated in part by it–but, while no one considers a letter a publication as publication itself, we tend to fold in this branch of things into ‘web publication’ as a matter of course.

    So, are Facebook posts or tweets ‘publishing’? Sometimes, sometimes not, seems like the best answer. Mostly it’s conversation, and I’m not sure we entirely gain by losing that distinction. Remember the brouhaha called up here a while ago about whether you can copyright a tweet? Does considering the difference between publication and conversation (even good, funny, insightful conversation) help?

    A publication may facilitate a conversation, but not all conversation constitutes publication. What’s the difference between a comment on a blog and a blog post? What’s the difference between keeping a LiveJournal and considering your blog an instrument of ‘new media’? Can two people use one technology to two different ends? If not, why not? One person uses a printer for a newsletter–one uses it to print out letters to relatives. Are both in ‘desktop publishing’?

    Doesn’t that matter?

    All that said, I think the main point stands: that many people who are in the business of publishing are not aware of it. I just share some uneasiness at the broadest claim.

  15. Why do people keep saying the Gutenberg was first to print books?
    As we all should know the Chinese were first to do it, and with movable type.

  16. If you publish content of any kind – be it design, text or something else – you’re a publisher. And if you want to sell more of your work to business people (like me), you’d be well served to convince them they’re publishers too. Seeing yourself as a publisher is the first step to taking responsibility for the creation and distribution of quality content (in all its many forms).

  17. We probably need new words for some of these things.
    It’s clear that to the degree “publishing” means intentional transmission of collected or edited thoughts, ideas, images, etc. then a lot of what we call publishing today–like Facebook posts–are not really publishing. They’re water cooler conversations conducted via megaphones. We’re using a software or communications theory definition of publishing–as in “publish and subscribe”–to describe publishing here.
    Second, as content evolves to become an arm of marketing at large companies–witness Converse going into the recording studio business–publishing becomes more like the old soap opera business than what we have traditionally thought of as publishing. The point that designers will help determine how things get paid for is crucial, because surely there is a difference between Vogue Magazine and a content farm spewing out nonsene articles with titles like ” How to start Vogue Magazine.”

  18. Kenny, I’m glad your mum loves you: that’s important. I’d still like to know why you posted what you did: my criticisms were only half facetious.

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