in Digital Media

The Week in Review

An annotated list of the things I’ve been reading, writing, thinking, and talking about.

Future Perfect

The latest book from Steven Johnson, Future Perfect makes the case for a new political ideology, one he terms “peer progressivism.” Johnson takes Hayek’s most important insight (namely, that markets often have better information than any group of central planners could ever hope to access) and combines it with the best of progressivism (namely, a genuine concern for the poor and the disenfranchised) to yield something unique. Johnson advocates for distributed solutions to political problems. His suggestions for crowdsourcing decisions about local infrastructure spending are particularly intriguing. Side note: huge thanks to my brother, Josh, for passing this one along.

Modular Web Content

I’m slightly late to the party on this January blog post from Chris Butler. If you’re at all interested in the future of online publishing, it’s well worth checking out. Butler discusses the inherent tension between the type of gorgeous (but typically bespoke) digital longform piece and the limitations of CMS templating systems. Butler suggests moving to modular templates–ones that allow authors to arrange different blocks of content inside a single template.

The Book Metaphor

Interface design often relies on metaphors. Indeed, pretty much everything about the graphical user interface rests of some sort of metaphor, from information storage and retrieval (files and folders) to spreadsheets (ledger books) to, yes, ebooks (think iBooks and its page flips). This piece from UX Magazine reminds us that, however useful books have proven over the past millennium, they do have some inherent UX limitations, one that we might do well to avoid in our design of ebooks and ebook readers.

Death to the PDF

The World Bank released a new study (in PDF, natch) showing that no one downloads its PDF reports. Music to my ears! The Washington Post’s Wonkblog weighed in with the provocative suggestion that, “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads.” The Guardian, meanwhile, asks “Is the PDF Hurting Democracy?.” That may be too strong. But it’s certainly true that PDFs are an inceasingly-terrible way to present research reports.

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  1. That’s a fantastic piece on modular web content, and while I agree with most of it – particularly in theory. However, in practice it can be more costly and time consuming to implement a CMS capable of giving editors this type of control. A little bit of counterpoint from someone that has to help maintain one of those extremely modular CMS systems (they do exist): It’s often far more work keeping a large, robust, modular content system operational than it is to build the occasional piece of specialty, bespoke content that sits next to more simply managed content. Unless your editorial team really needs that type of functionality on a consistent basis, and unless you’re going to make extensive use of those features, those systems can be phenomenally complex to maintain and develop for and even harder to hire team members to maintain – at least the commercially available versions we have today. Aside from that, giving editors the type of control over the visual layout that these systems afford can lead to some interesting results. Before handing over that type of editorial control, you need to make sure your editors can cope with the flexibility that a modular content management system affords them.

    Ultimately, I would argue that using the current crop of modular CMS’s, we’re just shifting the labor from the Designers/Editors/Developers to the Developers/Infrastructure Team. That might be desirable in larger organizations or in smaller organizations with a top-notch infrastructure team in place, but employing technical team members that are capable of administering esoteric and complex CMS systems is likely to increase the cost of implementation.

    Major factors in making the decision to implement a modular CMS are: the amount of content you plan to publish outside of a set of standard templates, the resources you have available to dedicate to managing the CMS and do the people that make up your team have the ability/capacity to operate with that kind of flexibility and control over the presentation.

    What I do agree with the author on is that we need better software before this type of control will be feasible outside of enterprise-level organizations.

  2. We’e actually giving some thought to going with a hybridized version at TCF. A normal set of templates for ordinary content (e.g., blog posts, events, news items, books, etc.), and then add a modular version (maybe something like WordPress’ Aesop Story Engine) to add longfom feature items. Or that’s what we were considering before our in-house developer took another job. *sigh*

    One additional worry that we’ve had: what happens to modular content in the next redesign? It’s possible that I just haven’t fully gotten my head around modular templating, but I’d think that once you’ve started moving pieces around all over the place, future redesigns would have to remain fairly consistent with the old designs–a new coat of paint, but nothing fundamentally new in terms of how various content pieces layout. Otherwise, you could potentially end up with a mess when you rolled a new set of styles.

    Or, to put the point more simply, are you sacrificing future-proof content for flexibility today.