An App I Like – Top Gear

Top Gear, much in the news recently, has got its app just right, according to Dickon Ross (writing before Chris Evans’ recent appointment to the Top Gear hot seat). Fun, well presented, brilliantly written and, unlike many others, with just the right amount of interactivity.

By Dickon Ross

We gave up the family car years ago and became five environment-friendlier, healthier and annoyingly smug London cyclists – a Top Gear fan’s worst nightmare, next to a queue of caravans. I disagree with Jeremy Clarkson’s views on almost everything although we would agree, albeit for very different reasons, that cars and bicycles don’t mix very well.

Yet I appreciate that his journalism skills and powerful personality made him the most famous – to some infamous – face of the BBC’s most profitable global brand. Top Gear always gets the content, tone, style and humour right no matter what it does: television, books, magazines or air fresheners. As you’d expect, the app too is full of great writing, brilliant sub-editing and excellent design. But there are other reasons I like this app so much.

Magazine apps are still evolving and they are feeling their way down two parallel paths right now. There are the HTML5-based apps, with heavily templated layouts and a high degree of automation that also allows continual and immediate publishing of new material. Their design is more like website design than print and automatically adapts to the different, proliferating mobile screen sizes.

The downside is the presentation can become repetitive from story to story. The layouts can become a bit boring, comprising main picture, headline, text and often little more. But they do work especially well for continually-updated, news-led publications.

In contrast, glossy monthly magazines work well in edition-based apps designed on fixed size canvases and an aesthetic more like print design than web. The result is a more picture-rich, features-led and multimedia-led ‘lean back’ read. They are more work to produce because the production is less automated but the design is more flexible, varied and often more interactive. The issues can be nicely crafted and curated, with a beginning, middle and end.

Top Gear is a brilliant example of this type and won designer Matt Manion the award for Best Digital Designer at this year’s British Society of Magazine Editors’ Rising Stars Awards in June.

Along with other monthlies including National Geographic, GQ (also a BSME winner last year) and indeed our own E&T app, Top Gear uses the Adobe Digital Publishing System. The ‘stacks’ navigation (horizontal swipe for a new feature, vertical to read through a feature) is intuitive and simple but makes more of the tablet medium than a ‘page-turner’ copy of a print magazine.

Top Gear doesn’t feel obliged to build both portrait and landscape views, which publishers once considered a necessity in Adobe DPS. And why should it? No one expects that choice in a print product or a game. Landscape feels like the right and natural choice for pictures and videos of cars in the big outdoors. Footers mean you always know when you’ve reached the end of a feature stack. There’s a phone edition too, designed to be read in portrait with picture galleries on the landscape. Producing this must mean a lot of extra work but the result is worth it.

The interactivity in Top Gear is super-slick and brings the whole experience alive, making it as fun and adventurous as the subject matter is to its readers.

Magazine app interactivity can sometimes feel desperate – piled in because ‘we can’ but also because ‘it’s expected’. Interactivity for its own sake is at best disappointing and at worst laughable. Top Gear’s interactivity is fun and playful but really clever and always has a point – whether it’s giving you an exclusive inside view or just making the tablet app experience feel crisp and cool. Pull back the sunroof on a sports convertible, lift the engine bonnet or look around inside a luxury car interior.

It’s important to experiment with what’s possible as app technology and the creativity to harness it evolve. We stand on the edge of a new wave of technology. The Internet of Things will put objects, sensors monitoring those objects and control of those objects all online. Imagine the possibilities of linking digital media to anything you like in the physical world. Imagine a health magazine that presents workouts or diets based on your health band or smartwatch data. Imagine a gardening magazine that delivers seasonal tips based on real soil or plant growth data from its readers’ gardens. Or a car magazine that reviews sports cars for you because it can tell you haven’t used your backseats for a long time, or gives you features on tyre performance when the sensors in your tyres warn they’re wearing out. Or even notices how worn out you are and starts reviewing autonomous cars for you. I can’t imagine the Top Gear readers going driverless but anything’s possible in the future.

In the meantime, this app just makes me smile. If only someone could do that with a cycling magazine.

Top Gear can be downloaded from the App Store.