where web content management and user experience collide

Design vs content in digital magazines

Data journalism and infographics
I was over at Guardian HQ last Friday for a small but well formed event on data journalism. A panel of five discussed infographics and the business of digging news stories out of data.

Simon Rogers kicked things off with a summary of what the Guardian is doing in this space. Back in the day when we both worked at Guardian Unlimited, I didn’t always see eye to eye with Simon, but I admire the good work he’s doing these days with the data blog.

David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful, was also on hand. Perhaps his most startling infographic was his CV. It turns out he never trained as a designer or did much more than dabble in design until a few years ago. Not bad for somebody who wrote what (I’d guess) was the year’s best selling design book.

In the Q&A there was discussion about whether some visualisations are only beautiful; nothing more than illustrations that add a bit of colour without clarifying anything—or in the worst case, even misrepresent the story. The latter case aside, I’d say visual variation is a legitimate end in itself. There’s nothing wrong with being pretty.

Still, it’s also the case that the best infographics work as an integral part of the story, and can bring out new insight. Design is being used here as part of the storytelling process. In the current Age of Skim Reading, the infographic is the story for many readers.

Which came first, the design or the content?
Which brings us to web templating and digital magazines.

Web template design is done before the content has turned up. The design is a bucket that gets filled with content. So there’s no real relationship between the design and the content; the design is not part of the story, merely part of the brand.

Most magazines, otoh, are designed around the content. Sure, there will be brand assets, master grids, baselines and so forth that get reused continually; but the design for each set of pages essentially starts with a blank slate and the story. The finished product is a story told with a mix of words and design.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Templating is highly scaleable. It has low production overheads once the templates have been created, so fits better into a tight production schedule. It deals better with distribution to multiple channels and devices; for each template A you can have (say) a matching mobile template A*.

But templates have to be “content-proof”, so that they don’t blow up when they encounter unexpected content; this is a really big constraint in practice. Templates don’t relate to the particular content of any story. And obviously they tend to look a bit “same-y”. All in all: an inferior user experience.

So this is the hard problem for digital magazines: is it possible to design content in a way that 1) can work across channels, and 2) can be done quickly enough and cost effectively enough to be viable.

Magazine options
Some people think magazines ought to just get with the programme, and adopt the web design paradigm so that their content can be easily pushed out to whatever digital channels are appropriate. This needn’t be as limited as it sounds. Your templates don’t have to be dumb buckets; you can make them pretty smart, so they introspect the content and format accordingly. It’s still lossy though; you’re still decoupling the design process from the storytelling.

Come to think of it, that decoupling is what in the CMS world we call “separation of content from presentation”, and it’s generally thought of it as a Good Thing. Is that a shibboleth we need to abolish in the magazine world? For search indexing etc, maybe it’s enough that it can be separated, after the fact.

Meanwhile, Adobe and Woodwing are building iPad-oriented solutions based around InDesign, the magazine publisher’s weapon of choice. This is a high-fidelity approach, which follows exactly the same design process as print. Which means it’s quite time intensive, and requires new design work for each device aspect ratio/orientation. Not to mention that the only way that they’ve found to make this non-lossy to date is to, er, bake the pages out as images… There’s talk about “adaptive design” and generating HTML5 in future releases. The truth is that a transition from InDesign to HTML (5 or otherwise) is likely to be quite lossy for the foreseeable future. Being a bit elastic is precisely one of HTML’s great strengths.

Which is the best approach? In short: I don’t think anybody’s there yet. It’s a matter of making a pragmatic decision that works for the moment (eg. only target iPad, “letterbox” your design for other devices, forget smartphones), while waiting for developments.


Filed under: Design, Publishing, , ,

What the iPad means for web content management

Publishers are understandably excited about the iPad, for a couple of reasons other than simple gadget lust. First, Apple have already implemented a hugely successful paywall in the iTunes store, selling music, games, TV, films and apps. With the introduction of the new iBooks app, publishers hope that consumers will (finally!) be willing to cough up for magazine and news content delivered over the web.

In addition, many see the iPad as offering an opportunity to deliver more engaging content. It seems likely that iPad content will be able to achieve something close to print quality layout and typesetting, but with the added goodness of video, audio and social features. That could be pretty exciting, especially for magazine content (though I expect there will be teething troubles, eg. the return of the splash page…)

These two things aren’t unrelated: more engaging content will help justify the introduction of charging. I’d guess many publishers are also hopeful there will be a resurgence of professionalism, figuring that only they will have the experience and skills to generate quality layout on a regular cycle.

But there’s the rub. As Bill Jensen of the Village Voice pointed out during a panel at SXSW this week, existing production processes are unlikely to support the necessary workflow.

For print-to-web productions, here’s what typically happens at present: copy and images are prepared for the print edition (using, say, InDesign), with attention to word counts and layout so that it all fits on the page. Then the raw content is exported to a WCM, discarding all the layout information (which would be pretty useless anyway, as tablet dimensions and resolution will be significantly different from the printed page).  In the WCM, there’s likely some extra metatagging etc carried out by the web team, with rich media content blended in. But there’s not usually any layout to speak of: content is simply pumped out through fixed web templates. At most, the web team choose from a set of pre-existing templates.

Bringing per-page design, layout and typesetting back into the equation is a big shift, and one that I’d guess most existing WCM solutions will have trouble coping with, certainly not without expensive customisation or reengineering. In the short term this might create greater opportunity for vendors like Issuu, who are already generating “digital editions” of print publications, albeit without much in the way of webbish enhancement.

But if the iPad is successful and this scenario does play out in the wild, then pure-play WCM vendors may need to gear up to make significant changes in their product functionality; hopefully via a deeper integration than just bolting on a standalone iPad solution as an additional layer of production workflow.

Filed under: Publishing, , ,

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