Print's not dead, it's just joined the ranks of presentation

Published: 01 September, 2003

Ever since paper was invented and people started making marks on it to communicate ideas content has been embedded in the medium. Once written down those words were forever set and their layout and style were passed through time.

Today we still adhere to this approach but we have many more presentation formats for the content to appear in: Print, Television, Radio, Web etc all with a huge range of audiences and purpose. Our content is duplicated and embedded in the relevant medium and sent out to the audiences prepackaged and ready for consumption. But things are changing, quite quickly compared to the relative history, and the Internet is to blame. This article takes a look at what happens when content is freed from presentation and the possible future that awaits Designers.

Content Gets Separated

The Internet has been through phenomonal change since it's inception with, arguably, the most interesting change being the separation of content from its presentation. I must clarfiy here that by "presentation" I am not just referring to colours, layout, motion etc but also the medium the content is presented in. Presentation on the Web is typically handled by HTML which lays out the content and provides relationships between content in the form of navigation. Recently the rise of technologies such as CSS and XML have seen the separation of content from presentation take on a much deeper dimension.

This is important on the Web (and indeed most Internet enabled systems) as this is the first popular medium the World has ever seen that has more than one way of accessing the content. Different devices and audiences have different requirements based on physical ability (both device and human), physical location, context and purpose and the content needs to behave accordingly.

One of the interesting things that happens when working with technologies like XML is that the content takes on a structure all of it's own. It's not pretty to look at but it is intelligible and gives the content definition that traditionally it has not had. A piece of text is no longer just a paragraph, it becomes the second section of an article; a word is no longer just bold, it becomes someone's first name, all of which is oblivious to presentation.

The other interesting change is that the limitations inherent in presentation suddenly disappear and the content is free to be displayed in any way that is appropriate.

Print vs. Web - It's all Presentation

Currently the Web is the best example of the use of this separation solely because the technologies and tools are all aimed at presenting content on a screen of some description. A piece of content can be rendered to HTML and displayed in a Browser or to WML and displayed on a mobile phone. Both have different requirements and, certainly, the person holding the phone does not need to receive 20 images and a PDF down the line. The content can be tailored.

Print, while certainly behind, is not out of the picture. Early tools, closer to Flint knives than Samurai swords, are appearing that take content stored in XML structures and render them out as print formats (re: Invoice Tutorial). This same content could be rendered into HTML for display on the Web as well which begs the next question: how far could this go?

In my opinion, a very long way. Imagine if you will a typical business situation which involves content, lots of content. Some of the content is for public consumption, some is for internal use and some is for business partners. The public content may appear in a quarterly report (all glossy and wonderful), it may also appear on the company web site and Intranet. Internal information may appear on the Intranet and in internal documents with 'Top Secret' written at the top. Now imagine that all that content came from the same place and had been only ever written down once.

Written once but published in multiple ways, in multiple places, in multiple formats for multiple audiences. The glossy quarterly report is still glossy but it contains the same content that appears on the web site, the only difference is the presentation and that now the content is maintained in one place. But, I hear you say, that would be a nightmare for Designers and, currently, you'd be right. The tools aren't there but imagine if there were tools for specific mediums that could take content from a central repository and let Designers format, layout and present as they wanted to. Want to position the monthly earnings top left in print but bottom right on the Web, not a problem, the content doesn't mind; want to remove every second word from the print version but leave them in on the Web, sure, the content doesn't mind. The formatting is all presentation as far as the content is concerned and the only limitation is with the content itself. Imagine if the content store also contained all the video and audio used by the business for Television and Radio. Makes for some interesting possibilties.

The Future

As mentioned a lot of this is still tucked neatly into the future as far as Designers are concerned but the foundation is starting to set. Standards like the XML structure DocBook and DocBook-Web (which this site is based on) provide a lot of the structure required to present content in different formats. As the tools start to arrive on the scene I think we'll start to see some more interesting solutions and, hopefully, greater collaboration between the Designers working in different mediums.