Tom Chi  

Content to be Stylish

March 12th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Content. This is what we call creative work these days. Its separation from specific presentation technologies (”form”) has long been a goal of standards commitees and web developers. From the technical perspective such separation makes a lot of sense — the cleaner the separation, the easier the transport of data across time or space or device.

From the creative pespective, however, the separation of form and content is not only nonsensical, it tends to degrade the work.Let my clarify. When a creative person cooks up “content”, that content is created with a specific presentation media in mind. Whether it’s published in a book, projected on the silver screen, or web-cast to a million homes, the creator makes creative decisions around what the media affords.

Take a book for example. As a media, a book affords for lengthy prose. It is portable and its pages can be turned at the user’s pace. Once published its content is static unless the user marks it up, and physical pages afford dog-earring of the juicy parts. As a result of these characteristics, one writes differently for a book than they do for the web. A skilled author might take 400 pages to get things going in a book, but on the web, this just doesn’t fly. No one reads a 400 page anything on the web.

Generally stated, moving your content from one media to another almost always ruins the creative work. A scanned book dropped onto a web page does not work as well as a book. Neither does a text-to-speech synthesizer reading the book aloud, nor a 42-hour movie which displays the text of book. Certainly all these possible translations are “successful” from a technical perspective, but no one wants to use the result.

This assertion is quite curious, because one of the main “benefits” often cited for separating content and form is the ability to present the content in other media. Yet as anyone who has had to browse the web on a tiny cell-phone screen can attest, viewing web content in a form factor that it was not designed for can be an excruciating experience. Even when you are successfully able to browse, it’s clear that you are not getting an experience anything like what the content creator planned. I liken it to watching an IMAX film on a 5” black and white television.

In recent times I see this tension growing to fever pitch. The technical guys make it possible to present your site or software on a PC, a PDA, a WAP-enabled phone, a car’s GPS screen, etc. The content creators are now asked to write a single instance of content that will be used on all these devices. This is essentially an impossible job — it’s hard enough to create something that works well in one media.

9 Responses to “Content to be Stylish”
Meri wrote:

Whilst I agree with your points about the creative impact of “one size fits all”, how do you feel about the standards-compliant approach to web design? Here I feel there are many more advantages than just the different media aspect to separation of content and form … for instance when changing one specific medium. I don’t want to have to edit every page of my website just to make a design change.

Bob wrote:

What about a text to speech synthesiser reading out a web page because the user is blind? Should we be shunning this medium-crossover too?

Sorry to be picky, Tom, but the singular of media is medium ;-)

Gideon wrote:

While I agree with you on the creative artistic of entertainment side of this argument, I would like to say that much of the data we would like to be able to present in any shape and form is factual or just data, not artistic or entertaining.
Data like: “when and where my next class is”, “when the last train home leaves the station”, or “if it will rain tomorrow”… There is no point for individual design for this kind of data at all, putting it in a semantic format would be much more useful when the format is understood by the user’s device.

The whole point of the web was that it would be a platform agnostic data exchange system, where the pages would contain semantic markup and the data and that the browser builders would have designed the look and feel of how the browser presents the pages. This would have given every user a clear and persistant view a cross the web, both in look as in feel, of all the websites. The mosaic-tabloid-like rendering most browsers give to webpages these days is not the only way to render a webpage; not even a very useful way in most cases: not every thing can fit the tabloid style.

The level of abstraction needed to see beyond the webpage and design the renderer in an browser is hard for most people to understand. Artist still don’t really see that they could be designing a browsers which will render each and every page in the way they them selfs invision it.

Even worse: most designers wants that their website looks different and unique.. with most of the time hideous results (All good websites look alike, all hideous websites are hideous in there own way.)

The rss news aggregators give us a glimpse of what the web could become, and maybe it will? I hope so.

Tom Chi wrote:

If accessibility is a key issue for your site, and you expect many people to make use of text-to-speech to experience it, then you have got to write content that works well with text-to-speech.

What most people do today, is they say things like: oh, my site is accessible because I can get to the data in all alternative and down-level formats. That’s great, but making a site accessible is not about “getting to the data”. I could experience the web on a display which is 10 characters across, and while I “get” the data, I just don’t want it anymore. Not like that.

As to Gideon’s point: Data like “when and where my next class is”, is of a different sort than creative content. That sort of data tends to short and have no creative message to communicate. Consequently it survives better when cut to ribbons and tossed into whichever device. I don’t have a problem with that so much as I do with zealotry from web people who demand that every type of content be separated from form.

dave wrote:

You seem to be making two separate arguments.

The first issue you raise is the nature of rich, human-targeted content on the Web. I agree that creators and artists shouldn’t be forced to ’shoehorn’ their work into another medium. In your case, this means you shouldn’t have to worry about formatting ok/cancel for my cellphone or for radio broadcast — and nobody is forcing you to do this! (Where are the zealous webheads you speak of?)

You should be cautious, though. The Web is a communication infrastructure first, a display/layout/rendering mechanism second. Your concept of the Web ‘medium’ seems to be tied to the current state of browsing technology. This is not guaranteed to be fixed over any period of time. If the message of ok/cancel is only meaningful today or for the next few years, then perhaps this is less of a concern. But if the message of your work needs to linger for artistic or business reasons, you need to take a longer view of where the medium is going.

This is, in part, what the W3C’s standards bodies are doing. They’re fusing their theoretical knowledge with practical experience from the past ten years of the Web in order to guide its future development.

This brings me to the second issue you raise, which is the questionable value of standards compliance in general, and of CSS/XHTML separation in specific.

If you believe the web medium is fixed, then there is no reason to adhere to the latest standards. If, however, you believe that the web medium is malleable — that over time, clients, servers, and data representation are likely to change — then adherence to standards should assist you in making transitions when they come.

As for CSS/XHTML: You seem to feel that separating a work into CSS and XHTML somehow “reduces” its holistic value… but in the end, you’re handing both to my browser at once. As the end-user, I am unaware of your chosen representation.

Designers should view CSS/XHTML separation pragmatically. Separation gives site maintainers the flexibility to make significant visual changes without a lot of grunt work. For ok/cancel this may not be interesting; for most corporate sites, this is critical. Also, CSS/XHTML were designed with rendering robustness and speed in mind. It’s true that modern browsers do a good job even in the face of atrocious mis-nested tables, but there are certain types of layout that simply can’t be achieved using old-style HTML alone. Is CSS the ultimate style language? Absolutely not. Is it a good forward direction from where we started? Sure.

Bob wrote:

Tom: you said “If accessibility is a key issue for your site…”. I would say that for 99.9% of sites it IS a key issue. Unless you know that a site will never be accessed by someone with some disability (and this is a very rare state of affairs) you must design for accessibility.

I agree with you that, as with any kind of user interface work, this cannot be tacked on at the end or done superficially.

A counter example to your argument is newspapers offering their articles on web sites. Suddenly it becomes a lot easier for visually impaired people to do what the rest of us take for granted: ‘read’ the paper every day. It is definitely content rather than just data e.g. timetables. It is transitory, but can still be described in artistic terms: style, meaning, emotional response etc. Having a newspaper site that renders one way for the visually impaired and another way for others makes a lot of sense to me.

Bob wrote:

Sorry to add to my own comment, but something I forgot. When I said “Unless … you must design for accessibility” - at least the U.S. and U.K. governments may back up this viewpoint with legal procedings. The Americans with Disabilities Act and similar legislation in the UK means that web sites are similar to buildings in their requirement to be accessible.

Mike Klein wrote:

I was going to comment on your article, but the font was too small for me to read easily.

joe wrote:

Re: Bob’s comment about accessibility. Just a small correction, but an important one: The ADA does not require ALL sites to be accessible for those who are differently abled. Instead, Section 508 amends the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d) to require that Federal sites and applications and devices provide appropriate accomodation. It also means that anyone who does business with the U.S. government must provide information in an appropriately accessible manner. So if your site is not a government site and you do not do business with the Federal government, you are not REQUIRED to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Of course, you are strongly encouraged to do so…and not complying means you lock out a certain body of users. Still, what about the designers and programmers who lock out Macintosh users (more than 20 million in the U.S. alone)? Instead, these designers/programmers use the argument, “We’re designing our site/application for the majority of our users.” What if you used the same argument in dealing with blind people, for example: “The vast majority of our users are sighted, so we don’t need to accomodate non-sighted users.” The emotional factor plays strongly in our reaction to such arguments, eh?


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?