Discovering Digital Books

Strategic Design for Digital & Print

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Discovering Digital Books

BookWall: Titles

BookWall by Anke Stohlmann, Jennings Hanna, Rae Milne and Willa Tracosas

Thanks to e-readers, we can now carry entire collections of our favorite titles with us—something that’s especially welcome in the warmer months, when we can dip into a book during an impromptu stop in the park or on a longer sojourn at the beach. But for all their convenience, e-readers aren’t much of help when we’re trying to decide what to read next. In this newsletter, we take a look at the ways designers and publishers are helping readers browse and discover digital books—without judging them by their covers, or flipping through their pages.

Browsing is one of the great pleasures of printed books. Picking up a book after seeing an eye-catching cover or spotting an interesting phrase of text that makes you want to finish the other 400-plus pages are part of the unique experience of choosing what to read. Digital books are changing this process, and publishers are looking for new ways to expose readers to the books they want to read. Designers are creating websites and applications that translate the book-browsing experience to the digital environment, including visualizations inspired by bookshelves and social networks that help readers share their favorite books.

Finding new books online is not really the problem; rather, as with digital music, the average reader now has access to everything, and choice becomes the challenge. How do you know what to read, when you can potentially read anything? Readers have always used a variety of criteria to choose books: covers, reviews, press, word of mouth from friends or trusted sources (hello, Oprah), or past experience with favorite authors, genres, or publishers. (As designers, we’ve always been drawn to the great covers.) At the same time, books are something that readers are accustomed to sharing, but digital e-books are locked up in devices where they are only accessible to their owners. Helping readers discover and have access to the “right” e-book has become an important part of the process of designing and marketing digital titles.

This topic was recently discussed at the “IfBookThen” conference in Stockholm, which looked at the future of publishing. Tove Leffler, editor in chief of the magazine The Swedish Bookseller, spoke about the “serendipity” of readers accidentally happening on a good book—something that is not really part of the experience of online book browsing, which is highly targeted and based on previous choices that are part of a reader’s digital profile. “The point of book discovery is selling someone a book that they didn’t know they were already going to like,” said Leffler. In a post about “IfBookThen” on, the blogger Suw Charman-Anderson (who also spoke at the conference) compared the process of book discovery to going on blind dates, arguing that when it comes to chemistry, direct experience is required: a reader has to actually “meet” a book and experience the text. To get to know if a book is right for her, Charman-Anderson asks that someone just give her the “first chapter and nothing else.”

Several websites and apps have been introduced to help the matchmaking process. Goodreads, recently acquired by Amazon, is the world’s largest social network based entirely around books. Its 17 million members can see what their friends are reading, share recommendations, and track books they’ve read and want to read. Readmill extends these social capabilities into a digital reading platform that allows readers to share their favorite bits of text with their friends, highlight quotes and follow friends to discover new books. Another startup, Jellybooks, gives readers the opportunity to sample books from participating publishers, similar to a “streaming” music service that allows listeners to hear and share tracks before purchasing them. Readers can download the first 10 percent of a book to their Kindle or iPad, courting the book before making the full commitment. Amazon and Barnes & Noble also offer sample downloads for Kindle and Nook, respectively.

Of course, a big part of the appeal of printed books are their covers, which draw readers in with evocative design and also function as a kind of advertisement for one’s personal interests and affiliations. Readers like to “peacock,” or show off what they’re reading, and covers are often conversation starters in public—a kind of analog social media. Designers continue to look for digital counterparts to the experience of browsing bookshelves in a store or library, of picking up a printed book based on its cover and flipping through its pages. E-books provide easy access to large collections and innovative possibilities for display, and designers are creating “digital bookshelves” that give readers new opportunities to explore books.

Bookr: Covers

Bookr: Covers

Bookr” by Alex Todero, Anke Stohlmann, Ashley Marie Quinn, Shelly X Ni and Willa Tracosas

Covers play a pivotal role in two prototypes recently created by designers at the MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts. (Full disclosure: Li’l Robin’s Anke Stohlmann collaborated on the design teams for both projects. When not working with her clients, Anke is currently expanding her skills in interaction design by pursuing a masters degree in the program.) As part of a workshop with the artist and technologist James Bridle, designers created “Bookr,” a social app for readers that combines visual aspects of the cover and personal profiles found in networks like Facebook. Readers can choose their favorite cover from current editions of the book they’re reading; the cover acts as their avatar and can include data about how far the reader is in the book, bookmarked sections, and more. Clicking through leads to further details about the book, as well as a profile of the reader, information about other books they’ve read, favorite authors and passages, and so on.

BookWall: Covers

BookWall: Quotes

BookWall by Anke Stohlmann, Jennings Hanna, Rae Milne and Willa Tracosas

The designers at SVA also created BookWall, an application that allows users to display, explore and share their cloud-based digital book collection on their device or as a “bookshelf” in their home or studio. Projected against a blank wall, the interface shows covers or favorite passages, and users can touch the “books” on the wall to flip between different modes, look up information, or compare their libraries with other users and view statistics about their reading. The prototype takes its visual cues from the familiar form of the bookshelf, as well as social media apps like Pinterest, where users share their collections and influences.


  1. I love this piece. It demonstrates the value of strategic design applied to publishing which is such a challenged business–this can help re-invent the industry–bravo!!

    And, I want one!!

    Comment by Mary McBride — May 22, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

  2. Thanks Mary! This is/was a great project to work on.

    Comment by anke — May 22, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

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