Today’s Obsession: Why Can’t I Control Anything?

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Here’s an irritating article from Thomas Baekdal, reminding publishers that they don’t control the formatting of their content any more, due to third-party display tools like Flipboard, and so on.

He offers a solution which I find completely infuriating (as a designer) and completely incorrect (as a developer). His solution offers a way to essentially stop designing imagery. His band-aid solution is to develop photographic content into an always-central format so that the apps can control the crop as they please—basically, his notion is to force a designed format into a formulaic approach so that an engineer can safely ignore content for the sake of cranking out tons of the stuff. I think he’s only partially correct, and applying a band-aid to a larger problem which remains unaddressed.

He’s correct in saying something formulaic should happen so that engineering doesn’t need to pay attention to content on a piece-by-piece basis. But I think there’s something missing here. I reject the notion that content is only words and pictures to be firehosed from application to application without regard for presentation. Presentation is content as well. Content publishing applications consistently ignore this. The emotional value of a dramatic crop, or a dramatic page-breaking decision is simply not considered to be content at all.

Right now, content is designed and published specifically for its home format. So basically: content made for the New York Times looks great on the New York Times’ site. Everything else is a crapshoot. What should happen is: content should be designed and published knowing that it will be seen in several different formats.

I think a better answer to this problem is to step further back in the process from these third-party apps. There needs to be be a standard method for content producers to define content so that their designed decisions are kept in place as they are circulated around the ‘net. Flipboard already does this, and so does Facebook—but tool-specific options aren’t enough.

I’m not sure what this should be—possibly a series of tags defining image proportions and page breaks. Possibly a standard package for articles that would define not only its CSS properties (like headline prominence, blockquotes, and so on—which we already do), but its pacing and photographic presentation. The difference between this and CSS: CSS is considered a secondary add-on to an article. This would be considered part of the article.

I think my proposed format could extend a document’s definition to include desired page-breaks to define pacing, and a suite of photographic compositions—possibly three for each photo (landscape, portrait, and square). So when a content producer creates a document, they actually create three different versions of the same photograph, and this decade-old composition problem becomes a nonissue.