The line of best fit

The line of best fit

Richard Dawkins famously popularised the idea of a “meme”, after using the term in his bestseller The Selfish Gene. The concept is essentially evolutionary; an idea, trait or behaviour perpetuates ceaselessly, incrementally mutating in the process. Nowadays the meme’s spiritual home is the online world, with images and their sardonic captions endlessly reinventing themselves, frequently catapulting unknowing bystanders into online (often cult, admittedly) celebrity.

Dawkins’ idea has come full circle, in many respects, in an innovative new project from Penguin which dovetails the infinite nature of his scientific theorem with the near-limitless possibilities of digital technology. Penguin is issuing a 30th anniversary edition of The Blind Watchmaker alongside Climbing Mount Improbable (in a 20th anniversary edition) and Unweaving the Rainbow (all £6.99, out now). (The trio were first issued by Pearson-owned Longman, Viking and Allen Lane respectively).

A website, MountImprobable.com, was built by the publisher’s in-house Creative Technology team—comprising community manager Claudia Toia, creative developer Mathieu Triay and cover designer Matthew Young—who resuscitated and redeployed code Dawkins wrote in the 1980s and ’90s to enable users to create unique, “evolutionary” imprints. The images will be used as cover imagery on Dawkins’ trio to grant users an entirely individual, personalised print copy.

The project came about, Toia says, through Dawkins: “In The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, he references a suite of computer programs that he wrote that simulate the process of evolution, creating a ‘biomorph’, as he termed it. Unfortunately these programs were obsolete—they were written in an old programming language called Pascal, which doesn’t run on modern computers—so we wondered if we could bring them back to life again, with the ultimate aim being to make them available and accessible to all.” The new code has since been made open source, for users to utilise or adapt further.

     

Triay explains the new iteration: “We got hold of a copy of Dawkins’ code and spent a while figuring out how his algorithms work— there is very little documentation available for the Pascal programming language, so it took a lot of trial and error—and once we did, we were able to start rewriting them in a modern programming language, Javascript. [The process] is the same as translating a book: you remain faithful to the author’s original work and ideas, you’re just transporting it from one language to another. After a couple of weeks, we had a basic working version that could faithfully reproduce biomorphs and shells, just as Dawkins had. [The biologist conceived of biomorphs as akin to insects, they feature on the Watchmaker cover; he also experi- mented with shell patterns, which are to be rendered on the Climbing titles]. We used this to generate the images for the unique covers, and once the covers were finished we focused on the website and the user experience.”

Mutual understanding

If entirely unique covers were not enough of an undertaking, the online user experience was quite another altogether. The trio have previously created similarly slick digital-native projects for Pelican Books (nodded to by Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page in his FutureBook 2015 keynote), Penguin’s Little Black Classics and recent Pocket Penguins, and also for Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons in Physics. They are all a far cry from the archetypal publisher website: colourful; responsive across devices; consistently readable; and resistant to a rigid framework (to the untrained eye, at least). Each digital project is also tied in some way to the physical iteration, an instance of true “multiplatform” publishing; perhaps this latest example of osmosis is their most overt in terms of unifying pixel and page to date.

A multipronged approach was central to the project, Young says: “It’s important to design for all devices right from the start. It’s not just about mobile and desktop—even on ‘desktop’ devices, you don’t know whether a user is browsing on a 15-inch PC, using Internet Explorer, or a 27-inch iMac using Google Chrome. If you try to design a ‘one size fits all’ site, you’re not providing the best experience for users. The design has to be flexible enough to work at any size and with any input device: a keyboard and mouse, or a stubby human finger.”

     

Triay adds: “Naturally the cross-platform aspect was part of the solution. When you load the website on mobile it looks quite different. The challenge in converting what’s effectively a research tool into an accessible, interactive game lies in abstracting what’s not necessary for the user to understand and emphasising what’s taken for granted in the original presentation. For instance, in the original programs you could breed to infinity, but being able to see the full lineage was very difficult. By using a tree, similar to phylogenetic trees, we were able to open up the possibilities and run multiple generations from multiple creatures at a time, which clearly shows the difference in offspring.”

The physical iterations had different demands, among them the necessity of a unified appearance to link the trio, all the while accommodating an enormous breadth of imagery. Young says this was achieved with “a template and typography that had to be strong enough to hold everything together”; it makes use of bold, hyper-legible type, with the Penguin stamp in the top-right corner.

Yet the logistical aspect of compiling and printing users’ numerous designs on such a scale was also a challenge, one of which Young notes: “The production team was initially pretty sceptical when we proposed the idea of printing unique covers—initially it was suggested we do 1,000 different covers and just reprint the 1,000 over and over to make up the full print run. But we knew that to be really faithful to Dawkins’ books and the concept of evolution, we had to make every cover genuinely unique.”

An InDesign script automated the placement of the biomorphs and shells onto the jacket designs, but a change of tack was required with the job’s printer to fully realise the project. The decision was taken to print digitally rather than lithographically, thus bypassing the need to create numerous (expensive) printing plates; instead, Young explains, “we could simply create one PDF with thousands of covers and the printer could feed this into its digital press. We were initially worried about the quality of the printing as it’s not as precise as a litho press, but we did some tests and the results were pretty flawless.”

     

Nor is it a short-term promotional gimmick either, as Toia notes that “when the books are reprinted, we will generate a new set of covers to ensure no two are ever the same”. Each of the titles will also contain a unique code, enabling the reader to trace their organism’s evolution online.

Reaching new audiences

It’s certainly a novel approach to cover design, and when considered alongside the trio’s earlier projects, there appears to be a parallel narrative developing. In orthodox terms the Pelican project is best described as a platform, through which users can actually read the titles, yet the other websites may be tougher to define in terms of their precise function in the “legacy” publishing ecosystem—and arguably that’s the intention. Toia says: “Our goal is to create interactive spaces that will reach new audiences...half of it is finding an appealing concept, and the other half is helping readers to see the books in a different light.”

And how do they determine which titles or series to work on? “Often a book, particularly non-fiction, can seem a little out of reach— will I understand all that?...non-fiction and classics [in particular] suffer from that, and this is what we focus on. We pick what we think will work best in digital format, but also the projects that maybe need help in terms of reach, or have an image of being too hard to ‘get into’.

“The projects are constructed both as a companion to the books for existing readers, but also as a more accessible door for new readers—one to open and dive in.”