Page Composition in the Digital Era

You likely have heard the Riddle of the Sphinx: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus solved the riddle with one word: “Man.” He didn’t interpret the time of day literally, and he knew that a baby crawls on all fours, an adult stands on two feet, and the elderly use a cane.

Here’s an interesting analogy in language development: “What communicates by mouth and ear in the morning, by hand and eye at noon, and with 0s and 1s in the evening?”

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Evolution of Page Composition

Imagine the first “typesetters” wondering if chiseling letters into stone would someday be less burdensome. Certainly clay tablets, paper, and the printing press were improvements.

Those improvements spanned centuries. Today, innovation happens much more quickly—yet, some of the past always remains.

People have been saying for years that textbooks would soon be gone, but they are still here and still evolving.

So is page composition.

A Working Definition of Page Composition

Let’s start by simply defining page composition:

Page composition: the arrangement of text and all other objects on the page of a document.

The way content is presented can change its impact. Just think of a newspaper headline or a sidebar quote that emphasizes an important point. Every layout choice can help engage the reader.

You might use other terms to refer to page composition: page layout, page make-up, page set-up, page design, or desktop publishing. (Are we on the same page?)

Page Composition in the Digital Age

Printer_in_1568-ceAfter Gutenberg introduced his printing press (ca. 1440), authors could rely on a third party to “compose” pages.

Since then, printed books have stood strong for more than five centuries, relying faithfully on compositors and on each page’s being printed exactly the way the compositor left it. But in today’s digital era, it’s not the compositor who rules but the device that displays the content and the software used to create the product—adding new challenges to the world of composition.

Challenge #1: Responsive Design

Responsive design refers to the automatic adjustment of the visual elements on a device’s screen, from large computers to small mobile phones. On tablets and smartphones, content also adjusts to vertical, or landscape, viewing. Although a compositor could lay out each individual screen, the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, software automates composition “on the fly.” Consequently, the compositor no longer has the complete control over layout that was possible with a printed book, focusing instead on finding solutions that work well in as many situations as possible.

Challenge #2: Web Design

In web design, the compositor is called a “front-end developer.” The developer’s tools are different: HTML-, CSS-, and Javascript-coding have turned composition into programming. It is no surprise that many former compositors have reinvented themselves as front-end developers; it’s still about laying out pages. There’s also a new generation of developers with a pure programming background—and, hopefully, some background in graphic design. Many development houses classify this skill set as part of their “graphic services.”

Challenge #3: e-Books (Electronic Books)

The composition of electronic books (such as ePub, eBook, and iBook) is similar to that of printed books, but adding electronic responsiveness to the mix changes things. Now, the end user can control the font, font size, viewing mode, zoom level, and more. Responsiveness has forced the compositor to worry more about programming, and less about creating “stunning” visual pages.

See our next blog for insights on choosing among the various e-book options available to publishers.

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