Feb 26, 2013

Interview with Tim Moore, Creative Director of 29th Street Publishing

Among the most exciting developments in iPad app creation has been the rise of magazine apps that are unique, not based on pre-existing publications or their formats. 29th Street Publishing has been in the vanguard of this movement, creating magazine apps from scratch, and using a native technology that is unlike the DPS-style approach that so many print magazines have used for their digital versions. So far they’ve done three apps: the Latino sports-themed V as in Victor, The Awl: Weekend Companion, a spinoff from the popular Awl website, and Maura Magazine, a weekly collection of music and cultural writing by critic/journalist Maura Johnston. All three apps have been done for the iPad and iPhone, and sample issues of each are available free from the iTunes stores.

The apps themselves are text-driven (although V as in Victor has sported a very smart series of cover illustrations), featuring a spare, modern design that owes a lot to the look of The New Yorker. The navigation is not as linear and structured as most traditional magazine apps, and features some of the novel approaches used in digital versions of Letter to Jane and Port.

It’s no surprise then, that one of the wizards behind this set of apps is Tim Moore, the creative director of 29th Street Publishing. Before moving to New York City to work on the project Tim was the creative force behind the SPD-fave Letter to Jane app, which was produced out of his home in Portland, Oregon. He also worked as a developer with art directors Matt Wiley and Jeremy Leslie on several digital issues of Port magazine. On the eve of the launch of the newest issue of Letter to Jane, and with the debut of the third app from 29th Street Publishing, Maura Magazine, we talked with Tim about his approach to making apps and take a look at some of his creations.

What’s going on at 29th Street Publishing?
We have 21 clients signed up for this year, all with unique views, so it’s going to be a big challenge and a lot of fun to come up with new ideas. So far we’ve released text-heavy, literary-type publications, but the next wave of releases are going to have a lot more variety. We have book clubs, photographers, illustrators, magazines (both old and new), small voices, big voices, news, sports, and food journals, and on and on. We’re constantly asking new questions and trying to figure out the best way to present a certain type of magazine.

How would you describe the apps that you’re creating?
When I started at 29th Street I was shown a very basic wireframe version of the technology that they had been building for the past year. You entered a link to your content in an admin, it populated articles together and bundled them into an issue, and sent it to a device within seconds. It was very cool, but it was only a technology and not a real product yet. The real opportunity we all saw was not that we could shape this technology into a shippable product, but that we could shape it into anything we wanted. So our first couple apps have used this system one way in making lean, zine-like publications, but the next set of apps will be of a much greater variety.

29th Street CEO David Jacobs wrote a really good piece on this on our blog last month, where he talked about how publishing has never been a one-size-fits-all business, and yet that’s what digital publishers have been trying to do over the past couple years. We don’t want to put content into a shell app and sell it; we want something that’s flexible and that can make a variety of different experiences. When I go to McNally Jackson Books to get something new to read, I’m met with different kinds of publications. There’s mass market titles, self-published zines, large format books, photography books, journals, that all exist together and add to the overall print reading experience. That’s what we want to represent in the digital world. There are many different voices and formats out there and we want to be flexible and creative enough to bring them to the reader in the purest form possible.

What do you do at 29th Street Publishing?
The best way to describe the process would be to go through what it took to make Maura Magazine. We started meeting up with Maura Johnston, talking about what we liked and disliked about anything and everything. Maura had seen our previous apps and drew a couple sketches of how she’d like her magazine to function. I took that and started making mockups in InDesign. I make everything in InDesign and export it later. I really love how Maura dresses, with a lot of subtle prints and textures, so I decided I wanted something like that in the app, to give it just another weird dimension. After I finalize a layout in InDesign I start to make it in Xcode. 29th Street CTO Natalie Podrazik and I both program the apps. I do most of the UI and visual parts of the app while Natalie does all the cool (and incredibly complicated) back end stuff.

You have a very distinctive approach to app building and navigation that doesn’t follow the traditional linear, print-based experience…
My background is in photography and film; it’s how my mind is wired. I view the world and everything in images and break those images down into shapes and compositions. I named Letter to Jane after a short film by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Paul Gorrin which they made for a couple hundred dollars using only a photograph and a tape recorder. They and other directors of their time were writers who wanted to use film to make essays. With Letter to Jane I wanted to make film with essays. I took the basic structures of filmmaking and applied them to the magazine. Each article would be its own self-contained scene, with the scenes linked together narratively to make an issue in the same way you’d have a film. The iPad is basically just a frame that really benefits from emphasizing one thing at a time. I think the iPad excels when you’re holding it in your hands and looking at a photo or watching a movie; there’s a great, simple connection you make with the content. So this is why I started structuring the apps as I did, and I’m constantly trying to make this more fluid. I think one reason this has caught on is because it gives you a sense of place in the app, and that is something that DPS-like apps have struggled with. The print metaphor doesn’t exactly translate, and constantly reconfiguring your print content from a two-page layout to a single-page layout is a lot of work and time. Starting digital first gives me an advantage to best display the content for a device.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned much in the conversation but has a real impact is that the iPad has a limited amount of space to work with. The type has to be bigger, you can’t display as many objects together as you can in print, and you have to add a new layer of navigation on top of that. I think it’s a big reason why there’s still so much up in the air about how to design for tablets, because it might be shaped like a magazine, but it can’t hold nearly the amount of detail at once. And I’m not even going to touch on the topic of designing for different screens and devices…

29th Street apps are built on a native platform. For those only familiar with DPS, Woodwing, or Mag+ platforms, what does that mean?
What I mean by native is building an app with Apple’s own development tools called Xcode. DPS or other tools like it export your work from InDesign and port it over to a number of devices. I view DPS as more of a broadcasting tool, while building native has a more defined purpose. You have complete control over the product and you can really improve the experience and performance by going native. The downside is that it can be expensive, and you need an engineering background. One of the reasons 29th Street Publishing exists is to help overcome this hurdle. With 29th Street I really wanted to change one trend that DPS apps have made commonplace, which is that you start in a storefront and buy an issue and wait for it to load. I want you to download the app, see the cover and start reading right away. It’s subtle, but I wanted our apps to feel like what they are, a unique product, and not content that got loaded into a shell app. By building native, we’re saying we know what and how we want to do things; we’re making the specific product and experience we want to.

The 29th Street Publishing Team:

David Jacobs: CEO
Natalie Podrazik: CTO
Blake Eskin: Editorial director
Tim Moore: Creative director
Liz Lettieri: Designer
Greg Knauss: Developer
Sue Apfelbaum: Contributing editor