The debut of Richard Branson's tablet based magazine Project, on the Apple iPad.

On Tuesday of this week Virgin tycoon Richard Branson stood in front of an audience of journalists and technophiles and launched what he called “the first truly digital magazine by creative people for creative people”.

I purchased the first issue of Project and spent some time with it over the last day. I have quite a few compliments and even more criticisms of the digital only magazine. What better place to start than the cover itself.

It seems clear that publishers have neither harnessed the medium yet or understand the best way to make a dynamic cover for their publications. Here is what I didn’t like:

  1. With the dynamic cover the app launch is anywhere between 15-20 seconds with my initial tests. With an instant-on device like the iPad I’d prefer a quicker start.
  2. With the initial app launch of the publication I can see the value in the video or dynamic cover. But to see the same video with each subsequent view of the cover is annoying. The dynamic element(s) should be user-initiated. This may also help with launch times on the iPad and Android based tablets.
  3. Let the user skip the dynamic element(s) altogether if they chose to. Whether there is a visual device to do so or with the tap of a finger, the reader should not be subjected to repeat views of the content. It looks like Oprah has been the only magazine that accomplishes this well, Project offers no such support.
  4. Do not include advertisements within the cover or application launch of digital publications. In some cases I’ve gotten even more annoyed by seeing the same auto-play video ads deeper within an issue.

If publishers insist on dynamic covers they should focus on using consumer behavior with the current issue to potentially drive the most popular stories to the cover. While I would never suggest the most popular content should replace the main cover or lead article, it could power the second tier of content on the cover or in a dynamic table of contents.

On the surface, adding video or movement to the cover of a digital magazine is inciting. It immediately sets an expectation with the reader that they will be immersed into a rich media experience. However I often find it to be a very creepy experience.

The debut issue of Esquire magazine on the iPad featured Javier Bardem. While the static version of the cover pictured a man of style the dynamic cover exposed his bad teeth and accent adding little to the experience. With the exception of the November 2010 issue of Esquire that featured a Harry Potter photo-like cover with Minka Kelly I have not seen anything that made me say “wow”.

With Project magazine actor Jeff Bridges graces the cover of the debut issue. I really like the editorial choice of Bridges because of the excellent interview within the issue and how he appeals to the older crowd for his body of work and potentially younger consumers with the upcoming release of Tron: Legacy.

Bridges was also a good sport in working with Virgin and Project to develop the video cover as well as the intro to his article. You can read about the technology behind the Jeff Bridges cover and the creative process on Project’s blog.

The Project staff may have intended that the Jeff Bridges’ videos would have a Tron-like quality to them, but instead they seem creepy and awkward while providing little editorial or visual value.

A quick tutorial on using the features in Project magazine.

I do need to commend the staff on including a “How to Use Project” tutorial on page four of the issue. It gives the reader an immediate manual on how to use the built-in functionality of the digital publication. I had some issues with the functionality, however that is something I will cover in another post.

In creating Project all Branson has really accomplished is adding another monthly magazine focused on lifestyle, technology and culture. Would this have been news at all if his latest “project” was in analog form and not digital?

That Branson was the first to bring a digital only magazine to the iPad is an accomplishment. And with the rumored launch of Rupert Murdoch’s digital-only iPad publication, the Daily, it is clear there is a developing market for completely digital publications.

However, one could argue that site like Salon, launched in 1995, have already accomplished creating a digital only magazine on a much more widely used platform – the Internet.

This is just the first part of a series of posts about Richard Branson’s Project, so keep coming back and don’t forget to share your thoughts as a comment below or hit me on Twitter.

Part 1: Deconstructing the Cover
Part 2: Deconstructing the Content