W3C Workshop on Digital Publication Layout and Presentation (from Manga to Magazines)

September 18-19, 2018; Tokyo, Japan

Workshop report

(See also the minutes of the Workshop, made possible by our scribes.)

Although the Workshop had a general scope on digital publication layout, the emphasis was on what is sometimes called “sequential art”, i.e., comics, mangas, bandes dessinées, etc. Different in style and narrative from one country to the other, these publications are all characterized by a rich visual content (mostly images deployed in specific order) providing a graphic storytelling. Publications of sequential art, including their digital versions, have a significant market in countries like France, Korea, Japan, Belgium, or the United States. See the overview given by Luc Audrain for some further details.

Digital sequential art (whether presented directly in a Web page or as part of an EPUB publication) represents significant challenges for the Open Web Platform. The placement of individual graphics, the possible inclusion of animation, the display of the content on different types of screens, transition effects from one section to the other, the exact placement of speech bubbles that take into account writing directions, pagination, or the problems raised by the layout requirements of different languages and cultures: these are all complex issues that may require advanced layout techniques. The presentations of Samuel Petit, Richard Ishida, Dave Cramer, or Shinyu Murakami just gave some glimpses into the problem area and some of the actions taken to tackle them.

Extract of the emakimono “Tale of the Mice”, Edo Period, Japan. Tokyo National Museum (photo by Ivan Herman).

One of the possible answers to the complexity is to base digital sequential publications on a simple collection of static images authored by external tools (in which case many formats used today, like EPUB3, may be considered to be too complex). However, in the long term, this is not necessarily satisfactory (e.g., if a cartoon is to be translated, or has to be responsive on different screens, etc.). The presentations of, e.g., Shinya Takami or Katsuhiro Ogata were important in raising these types of questions.

However, CSS is becoming more powerful for advanced typography and simpler to use than ever before. This is the result of having more appropriate tools (like grids or flexboxes) for common problems, where previously tricks and hacks were needed. Even though it can still improve a lot more, CSS is now capable of rich design, including long-form content, complex magazine, or poster like layout. It enables authors to dynamically adjust to variations of the reading environment chosen by the reader, including different screen sizes and aspect ratios. It also degrades well in less capable reading systems, giving a less polished, but still usable experience. Nat McCully also emphasized the difficulties of Desktop Publishing systems to express such flexible designs that contrast with the abilities of Web Technologies. There were several presentations introducing many of these new CSS features that are, though available and implemented in browsers, not yet widely known (see the presentations of, e.g., Hui Jing Chen, Myles Mayfield, or Rachel Andrew).

The new evolution of CSS, but also the rich possibilities coming to the fore in the Open Web Platform in general make it possible to realize many of the advanced features that publishers need. But there is more: it also creates new possibilities that the artists and developers working in this art form are only beginning to discover and explore. Some of the presentations (e.g., Pablo Defendini, Rachel Nabors, Vincent Wartelle, or Jean-Christophe Burie) explored features that may lead to interesting new forms of layout and graphic storytelling, ways to improve accessibility, responsiveness, or the ability to search for such content more easily on the Web. With all these new possibilities we may see, in the coming years, radical changes in the nature of digital sequential arts.

There were also presentations related to font design and usage. In some cases, layout problems may be better expressed through font design (see the presentation of Bobby Tung) although the current set of available font metrics may not be satisfactory for all cultures and scripts (see the aforementioned presentation of Nat McCully). The presentation of Satoko Takahashi on dynamic font usage (self-adapting by analyzing the underlying text) also raised lots of interest and questions.

In general, the workshop has proven to be a great meeting place for an exchange of ideas among publishers, storytellers, and some of the leading experts on CSS or fonts. The presentation of Elika Etemad, giving an overview of CSS Design Principles, was extremely helpful in providing a basis for further discussions that the publishing community would have to have with CSS experts on further layout issues. The challenges to be addressed by CSS are both at the individual skill sets and about workflows and business practices. Often, these new features require a change in mindset, and to think about design as a continuum of experiences instead of just a snapshot. Not only is this difficult because people need to learn new skills, but also because teams, production workflows, and maybe business practices need to be adapted as well. In all cases, there is a general agreement that authoring tools would be a significant enabler, and that what is currently available is underwhelming.

While all participants agreed on the need for better authoring tools, different people had different thoughts about what formats these tools should be operating on. Everyone seemed to agree that we need to take small steps from where we are, and standardization must be careful to describe what is already in use as opposed to very advanced, but still unchartered approaches. However, everybody is not at the same place. For many in the publishing industry, what we have today is EPUB3 and, often, Fixed Layout EPUB3. For others, what we have today is simply the Web, with the Open Web Platform stack (HTML, CSS, JS) as the sole natural format. Others, as mentioned before, are looking for significantly simplified formats and platforms. As a consequence, there are different ideas about what the next incremental step is.

Laurent Le Meur presented some work, started in a group under the auspices of the EDRLab, and based on the current work on Web Publication Manifests at W3C. The group aims to extend that manifest specification with terms and features specific to sequential art. This work may also produce a more general Digital Comics Taxonomy, that would be useful for the community whether a common, standard format is needed on top of the Open Web Platform or not.

Next steps

A particular issue that was mentioned several times is the difficulty to “get the message out”, i.e., to ensure that new techniques in CSS (or other areas of the Open Web Platform) are well presented and explained to the community of authors and, similarly, that the design principles (or grammatology) of the authors, artists, etc., working on sequential art would be understood by the technical community. Although authoring tools may help a lot, great tutorials, presentations, primers, etc., would help to make the new features better known. In many cases such tutorials do exist, but it is not obvious to find them and there was an agreement that much more could be done in this respect. The idea of some sort of an informal “registry” for such user facing documents was discussed, although no action has been agreed upon.

It is also important to establish a better channel of communication between the CSS and the Internationalization (I18N) Working Groups on the one hand, and the publishing community on the other. It was agreed that the W3C Publishing Business Group, that represents the publishing community at W3C, would push the need of having more participation in the CSS WG from the publishing community. This should also include finding more technical experts in the publishing community to take part in the work of these Working Groups; both the CSS and the I18N Working Groups fight with manpower problems and many of the new layout features can be finalized with further technical contribution and participation only.

A separate communication channel that should be reinforced is between the CSS Working Groups and the Font design community in general. For example, CSS may not have access to the right font metrics to properly design some of the new features, and such common discussions are necessary. Some sort of a set of communications (liaisons with other Working Group within and outside of W3C, such as ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29/WG 11) will be explored in the coming months.

Finally, there was an agreement that some of the work started by EDRLab should, eventually, be continued at W3C. As a first step, a W3C Community Group would be set up to carry the work forward, involving more experts, artists, or editors from Japan and Korea to ensure that their particular requirements would also be taken into account. This Community Group would work on a Digital Comics Taxonomy publishing, eventually, a Community Group Report.

Thank You!

The organizers acknowledge efforts of those who helped with the organization and execution of this workshop. Special thanks go to the members of the Program Committee for their support and contributions, the Workshop’s host for providing us with top-notch meeting facilities. Equally, thank you to our scribes, who helped document the various sessions and made the publications of the minutes possible. And finally, all the Workshop participants who collectively made the workshop such a productive, positive, and inspiring event.