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Images and text need to get together

Publishing tools should address the obvious, like layering text over images.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)


Don’t you find it annoying when you have to flip back and forth between a page of text and a picture it describes a few pages away? Consider, for example, this passage from an art history book on how Michelangelo combined doodles, text, and drawings:

At the top [of the illustration, a few pages away] … is the horizontal sketch of a leg universally credited to Michelangelo and apparently belonging to a woman or a boy. At the left of the open top of the leg, the artist has written Am and fig, the latter actually appearing inside the outline of the upper part of the limb.

The text is on page 37 (of “Michelangelo: A Life on Paper“); the figure that the author, Leonard Barkan, refers to, meanwhile, is over on page 39, looking like so:

Michelangelo drawing in art history book with brief, uninformative caption
Michelangelo drawing in art history book with brief, uninformative caption. Click to enlarge

So you traipse back and forth between explanation and image, first trying to identify the items in question, and then trying to register why those things are worthy of commentary.

What a pain. What a drag on the reading flow you’ve established, thanks to Professor Barkan’s otherwise incisive writing. What a pain for him, having to describe in text what would be trivially easy to point to were he standing next to you and the illustration. And how ironic, finally, that in a book devoted to the interplay between words and image so much of the author’s commentary is segregated in body copy away from the actual figures. How much more useful and easy-to-follow would his comments be if they were bolted onto the figure, like so:

Same image as above, with body text added in margins next to image
Same image as above, with body text added in margins next to image. Click to enlarge

You want my guess as to why things weren’t done this way? Two reasons: Professor Barkan uses Word rather than a page layout program like InDesign (no shame in that — those programs are awfully tough to learn). And the workflow in place at the publisher, Princeton University Press, doesn’t easily let authors mark up figures with custom placed captions. The end result: a diminished reading experience.

Tools don’t equal talent, goes the saying. Too bad the tools most of us use don’t capture the simple things most of us would say if we were talking to each other.

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  • Kathy sierra

    There’s evidence that splitting captions and illustrations can have a significant impact on cognitive load. We took this to hear in our books and eliminated captions completely by including the annotations *within* the pictures, diagrams, code, etc. A

    It’s referred to by cognitive load education research as “the contiguity principle”, for example:

    “students who read a text…that included captioned illustrations placed near the text generated about 75% more useful solutions on problem-solving transfer questions than did students who read the same text and illustrations presented on separate pages. (Mayer 1989).”

    I am still trying to figure out how to work around this now that I am writing with Kindle in mind. Losing the ability to have control over layout in this way is a huge step back for anything that is NOT exclusively text.

    (and thanks again for this fantastic series)

  • http://4dc5.com Pat Galea

    I thought about these kinds of problems a while back. I don’t claim to have the full solution, but I had some ideas about how to tackle the issue of referring to relevant images.

    http://4dc5.com/2008/06/01/making-technical-ebooks-work/

  • http://www.fullcaps.com Chris Rogers

    I work at another large university press, one that produces many hundreds of titles a year.

    We are currently working on a project to produce the next edition of one of our best selling books using inDesign, and it is going very well. However the set-up time required and the production costs are vastly increased. To let an author run free in a DTP program is entirely impractical without significant training. The production of inDesign templates in which the authors can work also takes a long time. All in all it would be impractical for us (at this point at least) to do this for any but the most design-heavy books.

    I agree with your last point. If the author had supplied instructions with the manuscript for anotations to be added to the figure, this could have easily been done by the typesetter. But this could have been done as a comment in word. Likely the author just didn’t think about it, rather than a flaw in the production process.