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The future of writing on tablets: A Q&A with Information Architects

November 13, 2010 |  8:52 am

IA-design-team-in-Tokyo
They say they are organizing the Web so you don’t have to. To them, every serif means something.

Founded by Oliver Reichenstein in 2005, Information Architects is a design strategy group focused on how information is translated from your brain into the form we see in online publication.

The company started out with a small team of eight people. The Tokyo-based firm has a second office in Switzerland, and now creates Web designs that generate over 3.5 billion page views a year.

Recently, Information Architects created an app for the iPad called Writer that it says is designed to help you reach your intended audience in the best possible form.

Within Writer, the typography is simple and the template is clean. There are few distractions in the app -- no ads, no extra editing options and no tool bars obstructing your one task –- to write. 

We recently spoke with Reichenstein about his vision for the future of writing, tablets, and Web design.

Why did you found Information Architects?

I met my wife in Japan and so I decided to stay here.  So I began thinking -– should I join a Japanese company?  But that can be difficult for foreigners, as the working culture here is different. Though people work long hours in Europe and in the United States, in Japan, many keep a sleeping bag under their desks.  So I decided to start my own company around screen typography.

(More of the Q&A, after the jump.)

In terms of Web design, are we currently in a state of Web “undesign”? Examples: Instapaper, Kindle, others have stripped-out ads, Flash, and other bells and whistles for cleaner templates.

No, we’re in a state where standards have been established.  Platforms are becoming more standardized.

For a lot of publications, like newspapers, they try to look special on the surface. News organizations are having trouble because they are trying to keep others on just their content, whereas Instapaper or Flipboard is giving you the best of everything. News organizations have to get away from the monolithic approach and work together.

How do you think iPad works in terms of productivity?

iPad is often described as a “lean-back” device, which is wrong. It’s a lean-back device, if you are in a lean-back situation where you read. But it also works as a lean-forward device. It works for writing if it’s optimized.

The lean-forward/lean-back change is hard on the iPad, but if you have a program that helps you just do one certain task, iPad can be useful. It’s that single-mode atmosphere that makes the iPad fun and strange at the same time.

Reading works well, but writing works well too if it’s just input and not editing.

Ergonomically, talk about how the iPad stacks up to a laptop. Is it a true replacement? Does iPad need a keyboard or will people get used to it as is?

For me, using iPad without a black case is almost impossible. The device itself is slippery and heavy. You need that angle [provided by the black case]. With the angle, the iPad has an advantage.  But when I’m in my office, it’s ridiculous to use iPad.

It’s not a full-on replacement for laptops. In many cases though, it’s more convenient.  It will replace [laptops] for consumers at home who aren’t inputting text but rather using it to consume information.

As a reader device, the iPad has a future. As an input device, it’ll be used in specific situations -- on a plane, on your way somewhere.

What was your inspiration for Writer?

The idea was very old. I used to earn money teaching Microsoft Office to students. A year ago, I was thinking we needed improvements to Word. I was thinking if you have a good tool, it can improve your output a lot.

Writers are expected to use computers, to use Word. But Word is not designed for writers. It’s mostly designed for editing text and formatting text.  But it doesn’t help you to actually write or to put out good text.

I thought about designing a device myself, but in January Steve Jobs came out with the iPad. It seems crazy to want to build a device, to design a new program. But somehow it all worked out.

Talk about why Writer works the way it does. Why is “form” so important to creativity?

When you talk about information, what you have in mind is some sort of power that goes through you. But that idea takes shape -– typographic shape, grammar, every aspect of the form that the information takes changes the meaning.  Having a different typography changes the meaning of the information.

Microsoft Word tells you to figure it all out for yourself.

What we did instead was we defined what the best setting for typography was. It’s a non-serif font optimized for speed and to suggest that you are still in draft mode.

We did some testing in the field, and apparently it works very well. In 15 years of designing interfaces, I’ve never had this type of feedback. I’m completely humbled by how much people like it. I think a lot of that has to do with the typography and how it makes you feel.

What’s next for Writer?

We’re developing Writer for iPhone. We’re also working on a desktop version of Writer for OS X.

Oliver-final Since your office is based in Tokyo, has Japanese minimalist art influenced your Web and app design sensibilities at all?

 In Japan, everything is defined in extremes. On one hand, you have a very, very loud youth culture. On the other, you have a very traditional minimalistic Japan.  Working with Japanese designers and being married to a Japanese architect has certainly influenced me.

But what influenced me more was starting a company in a country where I didn’t speak the language. When you can’t read the language, everything is defined in forms, everything becomes a user interface. You look at the world as if it were a blueprint.

When I designed Writer, I tried to look at things from the perspective of someone who cannot read.

Where is  iA headed overall?

Our plan is to build out the application side of our company. So a combination between client work and our own applications. Designing Writer helped me to understand the client concerns even more. Everything we do is designed around writing, reading and organizing information.

What do you think the future of e-readers and tablets looks like?

If we get tablets with a higher pixel density comparable to the iPhone that will make a massive difference for screen typography. Right now our eyes are trapped somewhere between pixel and pretty. That is very uncomfortable.

Of course, tablets are going to get lighter and smaller (screen only). Imagine the iPad as thin and with as light a build as the MacBook Air, without the big black frame. As mobile phones and tablets develop, I think tablets will become puzzle pieces that work together. Imagine a MacBook Air that allows you to detach the keyboard and thus turns into a tablet. There will be more software that works like the Scrabble app, where iPhone and iPad communicate easily and intelligently. I can see that happening between devices of different brands and operating systems if the open Web standard continues to dominate the way we consume content (and it will).

Touch device software standards will evolve and become as simple and common as desktop browser standards (if you compare today's standards with 1995, you know what I mean by simple). I am pretty sure that closed monolithic content apps will have a short lifespan.

What would you like to see in the future in terms of design on the Web and on iPad apps?

I think people in charge of hardware -- Apple in particular -- are doing a pretty good job; to use a historical analogy -- we're at the time of the ancient Greeks.  In terms of operating systems, we're Egypt without the Big Pyramids.  In terms of software, we are still in the Holocene. But that's OK. I am excited to be part of the generation that both defined how user interaction works on the screen as well as on mobile and tablet touch devices.

I don’t see design as a separate discipline. Good design has a technological, a tangible and an economical side.

Apart from seeing how new interfaces for designing, reading, writing and watching movies evolve, I'd like to see a news publisher that surprises us with a really gutsy, innovative, beautiful news product, that is: A product that users really need and are happy to pay for in some way. People that bought papers used to pay for the interface -- the actual paper, not the content. Some consciously, some not. We come out of a tradition of thousands of years, where we exchange money for physical goods or are guaranteed hilarious entertainment. Digital information has not changed anything in that regard. We still don't like to pay for information.

The interest in reading is bigger than ever, the market is tougher than ever. Designing experiences that use the moral power in us to change for good is the best motivation for us designers both as creative minds and as businessmen.

Truth is: People are ready to pay for good products, but in the end they need to hold something in their hands or hearts that makes them feel that they spent their money wisely. That's a tough challenge, when words cease to be physically set in the product you sell.

Designing better news is a design, strategy and economic issue. I don't have a solution, but I feel that I'm on a hot trail. What motivates me is that with the liberation of information, we see a global transformation of societies toward more openness, more reason, less lethargy.

Sometimes I get scared that this revolution -- just as all the big industrial revolutions before -- might eat its kids. But I can't see how. The dam has broken. There is no way back to information control.

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-- Lori Kozlowski
twitter.com/lorikozlowski

Photo (top): The iA design team in Tokyo. Credit: iA, Inc. Photo (second): Oliver Reichenstein. Credit: xmedialab.

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