Infusing publishing on the iPad with a lifelong appreciation for print, web and broadcast media, Katachi draws from each but emulates none. New ways of communicating have emerged by adding technology as the secret ingredient for telling stories. Katachi capitalize on the innate interactivity of the iPad to create beautiful, multi-sensory content that engages our readers.
The magazine is published in English, Japanese and Norwegian. We aim to weave together Eastern and Western culture through our editorial profile and graphic, colorful and most importantly, interactive design.
_First of all, congratulations on two gold medals in the Visuelt awards. How does it feel, it must be a great acknowledgement?
It's very nice to be recognized for the work. We have been working so hard and so long (2 years) to get things in order to be able to work this way. There has been many a month when we've fought off the idea of giving in and pushed forward. So to see others appreciate the approach and effort we have made is really reassuring.
_In one sentence; what is Katachi?
Katachi is a publishing company creating the future of books and magazines.
_You literally built Katachi from scratch. The contents, the whole technology... Can you tell us shortly about that process?
I think a lot of it begins with arrogance. We think our vision of the world is better, and should be heard and seen. When the iPad first was announced a lot of organizations said they would be leveraging their existing content onto the iPad. We think that’s a terrible idea. I've done several interactive TV projects when I lived in LA and I can tell you from experience forcing content from one medium into another is a less than ideal situation, giving you a less than ideal experience in the end.
In the 90's we saw how usability people managed to kill the creativity in web design because the designers were both unwilling and had no tools to fight for an option that was both exciting and made money. We don't want that to happen again, and the only way to make sure of that is by providing an alternative. So when it comes down to it, we think we have the solution (not the answer) and we want to make sure it's available to designers. The answer is out there waiting for people to invent it. We have started, but it will take a lot of designers to push it forward. After we decided make Katachi we quickly realized that there were no tools to do what we wanted to do and it would be far too expensive to code every issue from scratch. We started planning our perfect interactive design tool. This process essentially began with our frustration using flash, html editors etc. We wanted to make something less technical, more for a graphic designer than web designer. In this process we needed to figure out what features and functions a designer would need to make "any" touch experience. This process is extremely difficult, as we don't really know what will be made in the future. The medium is so young that we don't have much to work from.
We came up with designs for the magazine based on designing for the content in the articles and then build features that could make the designs we came up with. When we had the tools we would try them out and see if they worked. This back and forth process happened for about 18 months and is still happening now.
Creating the content for the magazine has been very difficult and interesting. First and foremost I need to say that Jonni, our Photo Director has been extremely important in the process. We have spent many, many late nights shooting, experimenting, trying and failing until we got it right.
_You are making a new way of interacting with a magazine, in a way changing the way we read... We have all been reading the same way since Gutenberg. What do you think of creating a whole new experience for people?
You can look at it from that point of view. We are sharing our grand vision of how you should read an iPad magazine. But we don't see it that way, we look upon it as we are a part of the process to both figure out what works best, and explore the options available. We have indeed designed the magazine to be read in a certain way, and that will continue to progress over time. There is no such thing as better readability, just popular readability. Zuzana Licko said that we read best what we read most, and there is really nothing to it more than that. When we eventually figure out what works, it will be because it feels right, not because it feels familiar. We are looking to the future with our work, not the past.
_How do people respond to that?
That part is kind of interesting. The biggest push back we have received has been from print magazine people, and ironically indie print magazine people. I think a lot of people in the print world have read too many of these print-versus-table and print killer articles. We don't have any competitive feeling toward print. We love print and this has been in part why we seek out indie magazine publishers, because we like what they do. But most so far have been less than excited about collaborating.
If we grab the iPad and show people the magazine for a couple of minutes, then they often don't really like it. But when someone seeks it out, buys it off of iTunes, they are really happy. Our iTunes ratings speak for themselves. We have great ratings all over the world. In the beginning we had some purchase process bugs that pissed a few people off, but they still said they liked the magazine once they managed to buy it. Those bugs have been fixed, by the way.
_It's still sort of a tactile experience? Getting all the senses together through pictures, videos: you were talking about adding a soundtrack in your next issue?
It is very much a tactile experience, but not in the same way as print. It's very hard to describe because we really don't understand it fully yet ourselves. The best way I can describe it is as an x factor in the mathematic sense. We design something on screen and then put it on the iPad to play with, and even if it's not so exciting on the computer, once you touch it, that touch magnifies the emotional value of the work by an x factor.
_Can all these possibilities be negative as well? Or do you just see opportunities?
I don't' think it's negative at all. We see the role of Katachi as a platform for looking at the possibilities and exploring. We do very different work when the design brief is different. If something needs to be extremely usable then we don't go to that level of experimentation. I guess the negative thing is that it's unexplored territory so we don't know where we are going with it, that can be stressful under deadline.
_What challenges do you meet?
It's a little like standing in front of a canvas with paint, but having never seen a painting before. Photographs are one way of approaching it, but that’s not very interesting. You need to use the medium for what its potential has to offer. The problem is that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential yet. In this case, the medium is the message and these critical theories are always going through our heads as a way of trying to understand what we are doing and where to go.
_Who is the typical Katachi reader?
I think the typical reader is very much like us. 20 to 40, highly media savvy, economically well off, well travelled. I would say about 50% of our readers are in the design business or related creative industries like advertising, fashion etc. Then there’s maybe a 20% group of magazine people, journalists etc. So it's largely media related people.
_Can you see differences in the readers, demographically? Are Japanese readers i.e. overrepresented because of their familiarity to technology?
That’s a myth about Japanese people. Most Japanese people are very non-technical. Japanese readers only represent about 8% of our readership. We have large readerships in China, the Middle East, France, Brazil and Russia. Just as a sidebar, the Japanese use their iPads very differently than we do in the West. In most circumstances they do not take them out in the public. It's primarily a home device or a private device. We almost never see iPads in public, but you can't buy the iPad 3 anywhere in Tokyo these days, they’re all sold out...
_Why the East-West approach? How did that come about?
Very simple; I spent my first four years out of high school living in Japan. I speak Japanese, and I absolutely love the country. On top of that their publishing industry is the most mature in the world, their magazine industry is just amazing with 100,000+ titles. The Japanese like to consume media. Also I'm a professor at Beijing University. China is super exciting and full of life and energy.
_How does the content form the technology and vice versa?
Content is king, period. Technology offers us as designers inspiration simply because the medium is so young. We look at the content, design ways to communicate that content, and have the technology make it happen. Once we have the thing working it usually inspires us in new directions and ways to communicate. But never, NEVER does technology sit in the drivers seat.
_You have made this software, specifically designed for the iPad. Have you got plans of putting it in different types of media? Like educational books etc?
We have made a tool that can create iPad-based publications, books and other story telling media. We are currently working with children's books, reports, educational books, experimentations and art books as well as magazines, of course. We want to push the medium forward and see the possibilities. This means that we question all of these ideas and try to mash them together to see what comes out the other end.
_Can you monitor how long people spend on each page? In that case it gives you quite an advantage. A lot of print magazines would do a lot to get such information.
Yeah, we have content-based analytics so we can see what our readers are doing and how they use the magazine. The results have been very satisfying. The reader typically reads 11 pages per session, and reads one page on an average of nine minutes. In general readers use our magazine a good amount and regularly. We are extremely happy with how they use Issue 1 and 2.
_You are sort of locked to the iPad system, although it gives certain benefits; how do you feel creating something specifically towards a big brand like Apple, and the iPad?
Our goal has always been to create the best experiences, not the most common. We chose the iPad because it allowed for us to be able to achieve that. We are always looking for other platforms to expand into, but we have not found any yet. Right now the iPad dominates the market. We looked at Android on several occasions but it's just not unified enough, it's a bit like design for all the web browsers, multiple OS version, screen sizes, touch technologies etc. We leave this to Adobe, they provide the tools to publish on all platforms, but the experience is sub standard because of all the limitations from working with so many variables. Also the customers are very different. iPad users spend more, use them more and download more apps. Eventually there will be a competitor to the iPad (not in the near future) and when they emerge, we will be there.
_How have you managed to finance such an intricate project like Katachi?
Gone into spend my savings, gone into debt, worked really hard. If you believe in something, it's important that you stick your neck out and really go for it. We probably could have got investors in the beginning. I think you should finance things yourself in the beginning, because it makes you try harder. Now it's a bit easier, we have positive cash flow and are moving in the right direction, and are now looking for investors.
_How many people are working with Katachi on a daily basis?
Fourteen people in Oslo, St. Petersburg and Berlin, and then another ten or so, freelance.
_What's a typical day at the Katachi office like?
We don't have a typical day at the office yet. Everything is still very new and changing regularly. I guess the most typical thing is that we try to meet problems we run into on a daily basis by solving them very quickly.
_Who are the people behind Katachi?
This is the core team: myself Ken Olling, I run Katachi and manage all of the aspects of it. Max Berg is responsible for Katachi Magazine and oversees other magazines. Max runs Katachi when I'm not there. Erlend Halvorsen is our CTO and works with me on the development of Origami Engine. Karianne Hjallen runs the book publishing part of the business and helps me with the licensing of our tools. This said; we all wear many hats on a daily basis.
Interview with Ken Olling and Max Berg, Katachi Magazine
by Untitled.Oslo, untitled.no
Photo: Espen Schive and Katachi Magazine