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Content Management and Design: Compromise

Ross McDowall
Ross McDowall Senior Web Developer
Visual Lizard
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Ross McDowall Fearless Dwarven Warrior

Any design element where the content being designed is under the control of the content management administrator requires simplicity in relation to the design. Specifically we are referring to the styling of copy within a website. Since the copy generally has to be fully editable to the content administrator for on the fly updates, having complex styling in the copy is not preferred. Due to the fact that the average person making copy edits to the content isn't skilled in HTML or CSS, a complex set of styles for paragraphs or headings is prohibitive to content management software.

Some Examples

In the following we see a design element which is slightly complex when considering the simple editing functionality of the CMS. The design would like to have several colours displayed to the visitor.

As you can see the content administrator has a single field to enter the copy for the heading. Assuming that the user doesn't know any HTML or CSS, how could he or she implement the design style indicated above? There are a few options here, however we should be clear that each of these options are based on very specific circumstances.

Option One: Redesign

Since the content administrator does not have the requisite programming skills or knowledge, the designer could redesign the look for a single colour of formatting for the heading. While the look is likely not as pleasing, it certainly simplifies the amount of programming we would have to do in order to allow a basic content editor to manage colours in sentences. The graphic below illustrates  a single colour for the headline.

Option Two: Programming

If it is necessary to have the specific look to the heading we are seeing, a set of generalized rules needs to be agreed upon in order for us to be able to programmatically apply the specified look to all headings in the same fashion. This is actually a decent option as it provides a consistent look to headings throughout the site. As long as it applies to all cases it is a relatively straight-forward rule to implement.

In the example below the last word would always be green while the rest of the title is red. This could also be adjusted so that the programming recognizes that the first word following a colon is green. The more complex the rules, the more programming is required to make the design work. If it gets to the point where the rules are too complex, it might be best to look into options 3 and 4.

Option Three: No Editors

This option is not ideal as it takes away the ability of the content administrator to edit the specific copy that they would like to be able to edit. However, this allows the programmer to apply the code and styles exactly as set forth in the design.

Option Four: Modified Editors

This option is not much of an option. Seriously. Don't ever pick this one, but in theory, we could build this. However the content administrator would likely look at the editors and say "You've got to be kidding". If the editors are modified to allow the administrator to build out the heading to be as complex as a word at a time, this would allow the content administrator to have complete control of the headings on a word by word basis. This option requires a significant effort on the part of the programmers to allow for the word by word functionality, and if actually used by the administrator, a significant amount of work building out the headings.

The example below also has some limitations, such as every second field would be coloured black and the other fields would follow a sequence of colours based on the design. This option could be extended further by adding a field per word where the admin could select from a series of set colours, but at that point it really is no longer a CMS and more of a customized HTML page and Option 3 would be a more appropriate choice.

So What Is My Best Option In Order To Build The Design My Client Wants?

When it comes down to it, option two is the one generally approved by designer, client, and programmer alike. As long as the programmers spell out the options for the designer and client ahead of time, all three groups won't waste time and money trying to do something that either takes away the content editing functionality from the client, causes a redesign from the designer, or requires coding complex editors than don't end up being used.

When planning and designing for your clients, our philosophy of "keep it simple" really applies when content control is being handed over.