The trope must die

A series of articles on challenges in transitioning from print to digital publishing. This is part one.


Why did the first automobiles look so much like horseless carriages? Why did early cinema look so much like a filmed play? Why do use page-curls in digital documents? How many of you actually remember using radio buttons on a car stereo?

WIth many new ideas, it’s easy to take on the tropes and artefacts of the ideas they are based on, and carrying them forward without thinking. There’s a few reasons why:

  1. Cost: Why start from scratch building cars when you had the workshops and components in place? Just put the horses out to pasture and whack an engine in somewhere. Job done. (while Karl Benz’s Motorwagen was built from scratch, many early automobiles were adapted from carriages)
  2. Fear of alienating audiences: Would people ‘get’ the new experiences cinema has to offer, or would they be confused?
  3. Habit: It can be very easy for designers and developers to unthinkingly carry through old ideas out of habit without even thinking about it, like junk DNA.
  4. Metaphor: We know something makes sense in the physical world, so we often try and carry it through to a virtual world, as a form of explanation or ‘it’s like this, for that’

Do the Evolution 

Using familiar design patterns can be an excellent way to explain new concepts to people, and to break down the barriers to entry caused by unfamiliarity. We can say things like “you know how to use a book, well a Kindle is like an electronic book” – and people seem to get it. 

Design patterns can be very useful, but when we’re making a big shift in media, they can sometimes hold progress back. If we look at the evolution of digital publications, it’s been a slow and steady movement from (in the most part) a printed page to reproducing that printed page on a digital device. It’s steady, linear, and not very imaginative, where ‘it worked in print, so it will work in digital’ seems to be the mindset. 

For digital publications to really evolve – to replace legacy-laden plodding dinosaurs with some bad-ass mammals – we really need some crazy mutations to shake things up.

If we challenge the tropes that we bring through from one platform for consuming content to another, we can bring in new ideas, new ways of thinking. Even if 99% of them are shite, that 1% might redefine how we consume digital content. 

So let’s not be afraid of trying new things. It’s digital, so mistakes and changes are easy to fix. Throw the baby out with the bathwater, you can always put it back in again if people start complaining. (Note: does not work with real babies). And you might just make something awesome.

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