Interview with Waldemar Węgrzyn – Elektrobiblioteka

Institute of Network Cultures: Can you introduce yourself: your background and what you are doing now?

Waldemar: My name is Waldemar Węgrzyn and I’m a graphic designer from Katowice, Poland. This year I graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Katowice in the department of design. My fields of interest are book design, typography and also multimedia experiments with interfaces.

Now I’m just trying to start a start-up, that may be ready to be launched in January, connected with book design and graphic design with additional experiments such as the Electrolibrary project.

INC: Can you tell me about the Elektrobiblioteka? How does it work?

W: The Electrolibrary is my diploma project that I completed in the Academy of Fine Arts of Katowice. It’s like a mix of the traditional paper book and a digital interface. It’s a book that can be connected to the computer by a USB cable. By turning pages, the user can navigate the project’s web site,
While reading, the user gets access to additional information such as quotations, hyperlinks or Youtube movies – things that couldn’t be inside a traditional book.

Elektrobiblioteka / Electrolibrary from waldek wegrzyn on Vimeo.

The title of the project is a reference to the El Lissitzky manifesto “Topography of typography”. It seems that in the 1920s El Lissitzky made predictions that electronic libraries would replace the traditional paper ones. The contents of the book are actually my diploma thesis regarding the book as a kind of interface. Unfortunately for now it’s only available in Polish but maybe I will translate it into English.

INC: Can we call the Elektrobiblioteka a digital book?

W: We can call it both a digital and a non-digital, or analogue, book because the project consists of two parts: a printed book (in fact it has some electronics inside, but it’s similar to traditional book) and the web site. Both parts are complete and independent publications so that you can read the book and the web site like you would normally. They are complementary, so by putting them together you create a new publication type that is different and more specific. The book is an interface for the contents that you can also be used to navigate the web site and to communicate with the computer.

INC: What have been the parameters, limits and rules in its design?

W: The project was a big experiment for me and it was about mixing my fields of interests, especially printed and digital design.

Since the beginning it wasn’t my intention to design some new and useful solution for an interface that would be comparable to e-books, for example, although Elektrobiblioteka is often described as a DIY e-book. Instead, what was really interesting to me was to combine these two forms of media and look at the connection, which I think is meaningful in and of itself.

So it was interesting for me that the book could be considered as an example of a text based interface, that you can compare to older ones and also to the newer ones, like the Lev Manovich’s thoughts on media in the book “The Language Of New Media,” which was very inspiring to me.

I also think that the mechanical aspect of the book – that it has spreads, numbered pages and a spine, etc. – is very interesting in comparison to the web site interface, because you can treat the space of the book in similar ways to the space of a web site.

INC: What were your main goals and did you reach all of them? Are you still working on it?

W: If the goal was to connect the book to the computer, then yes, it works. But the most interesting thing is what the conclusions are to this project.

I’m currently seeing if it’s possible to use such a device for children books or maybe artists’ books, so other kinds of projects more complicated than my own. Of course first I’ll have to solve some technical problems that were not very problematic for the project at that time, but that are now. For example the book has to be printable in bigger editions. There are some very strict parameters.

Those elements connected to the physical making of the book, like the book dimensions, bookbindig etc. are particularly difficult. The paper book has to be flexible and it’s difficult to provide an electrical connection between the pages at the same time.

INC: Did the feedback from users give you further inspiration to improve the project?

W: Yes, I tried to observe the readers, especially during some exhibitions or presentations of the Electrolibrary, and of course I also spoke to them. You know, it’s not like with regular books that obviously most readers read from the cover to the end, instead they play with it like with some kind of funny new device.

INC: It’s like a video game!

W: Yes, in certain ways it is. I think that Sony released “The Wonder Book” some time ago with a similar concept.

It’s very interesting for me that people very easily associate printed objects to their equivalents on the screen. For example, it’s obvious for them that if you have a square on the page and a square on the screen, it’s the same square and it’s just that you can additionally zoom in the monitor or other things like that.

Overall, I think this project is worthy because it is good to know that such a double publication can be created. It was a very multidisciplinary experience.

INC: What is the main difference between a book and an e-book? What about other digital editorial products (iPad applications, digital magazines, devices for reading on the web, etc.)? What about calling them all “reading experiences”?

W: I think “reading experiences” is a good definition. I don’t know if the technical difference is so important, I think that the main difference is rather the amount of information available at one time to the reader. It’s obvious that it is much easier to concentrate on a book that has specific contents and only one function than on an application, for example.

I think that the screen also demands shorter texts, and I see this in myself. I see that I start to have problems with reading long texts because I got used to the shorter ones that we have on the web and everywhere else.

I think that another interesting idea is the trust that we have in the authors of publications, or that if we buy a book somehow we think that the author is a reliable one, and treat him as an authority.

On the other hand, for text found on the internet or digital texts in most cases we don’t know the author We can command information, or switch to another text which is totally opposite in pursuit of information, but I think we don’t treat these texts as seriously even if they have good content.

INC: The relationship between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has it changed in the digital environment? Do you think this relationship could become something different in digital publishing, and how?

W: Of course we have new possibilities, for example putting animations or interactive elements into texts, but there are also lots of useless interactive animations and e-books. E-books for children are especially full of images that don’t necessarily emphasize the text.

I think now that Google can provide so many images on any subject it’s not necessary to use the image as only a way to visually explain a concept. In other words, you don’t have to illustrate the text by representing it with connected illustrations because everybody can look at thousands of different images on the same subject on the web.

Images are now used more to attract the reader’s attention and to present it, by having a book with game and video elements in it as well, which can be good but can also be bad. I think publishers somehow treat the text in books as if it was boring so they have to put a lot of different things in addition to the text.

I think that especially for graphic designers this is a very new situation because you don’t have control of the special relationships between text and images anymore, because on one device it may appear smaller and on one it appears bigger, for example. It’s becoming very difficult to connect these two elements.

To conclude I would say that maybe now text is only part of a big image made of web browsers or interfaces, or whatever you can have on the screen, and it is no longer the opposite as it was when images were only considered as parts of the text.

INC: What about the relationship between content and structure in the laying of a book (indexes, hyperlinks, different ways of visualization, etc.)? How does it change with the digital? What about it in digital publishing?

W: It’s very important for me as a designer that the process of designing a book is now totally different. Now you have to think about e-books or applications and even PDF files – well, maybe not PDF files as much, as they look the same on most screens. E-Books especially, though have a fluid layout and both text sizes and typefaces are variable, so the user can increase the text size, for example, and he can change it as he wants depending on the size of the screen.

So you have much less control of the outcome of the project, but it’s also quite interesting that the content and all the logical connections are becoming very important. For example, you have to divide the content into headlines and paragraphs that will be treated differently, or you can provide a browser to scan all of the content.

That’s why you have to design the structure very carefully, especially when you are designing a layout which is used not only for one text but which can be adapted. So you have to think about all of these elements as logical parts of the whole structure, which has to be considered not as one closed layout. In a certain way this concept is similar to the way it has always been in the laying out of a magazine.

INC: Do you think we are risking an overload of information in publishing, especially in online and digital publishing?

W: I think we’ve already faced it. We already have an overload of information and for sure it’s harder to judge from the ‘cover’ of digital publications because now, in terms of layout, they are similar to each other, both in a graphical or in a typographical way. Typography of e-books is still very poor in comparison to books. They often don’t have footenotes or bibliographical notes, doesn’t matter what kind of text it is, and for sure this is not a very convenient situation for the reader I think.

INC: Has the traditional book changed? Can we talk about a sort of “paper reaction” to the digital shift in publishing? What do you think about the increase of self-publishing, both on paper and digitally?

W: Books started to be perceived by readers and by people as a medium, so not only as “the thing of book” but as a container for information. That’s why it became so popular to create your own book, instead of just buying and reading books that we can find in bookstores.

That’s all very interesting and it’s a very positive movement, the self publishing, and I think it’s also a response to the shift to the digital language in communication: people want not only to read but also to write and to introduce themselves to each other. So you can create websites or your Facebook account, and in a similar way you can also create a book because it’s not so expensive and not so difficult to find a printer and all the stuff that you need.

I really like self publishing and I think we should treat books not only as products but also as a kind of thought sharing.

INC: What do you think about open source culture? What economic models do we have now in publishing and which do you think will take over in the future?

W: I’m not sure that we have open source in publishing now because it’s mostly still a few big Companies producing most of the books. But I also think that it’s impossible for them to sell as many books in the Internet era and even as many e-books, because publishing became easier and in a certain way because not only the paper but the information in general become cheaper and more accessible.

So I think that the publishing industries will divide the cheaper and the more popular part of their production from the other part, which will be very exclusive. Perhaps this part will be made of, I’d not say art books, but rather well designed books, printed as objects and not only as information containers, very well designed and carefully edited by an authority opinion.

INC: Can art and design practices make a contribution to the development of proper structures, models and even technological devices for digital publishing, and if so, how?

W: Yes, of course. Art and design practices are creative and inspiring for any other industries and it’s pretty obvious that people’s new ideas can contribute to the creation of new and different things in any field.

What is more important and innovative to me is that experimenting with different technologies and skills and approaches in different fields can be such an enhancement for designers, and everyone else. So I believe it’s really inspiring not only working with other specialists, which became a very popular way, but also having some self-lead projects.
It’s good to start a project where you really don’t know what the outcome will be. Of course you can’t do this on every project or every day but I think that was the most important lesson I got from the Elektrobiblioteka project: trying to create something that I didn’t know what it was before I began and then seeing what it became in the end.