CMS and the Single Web Designer

Content management is the next step in separating structure from design.  What began with Cascading Style Sheets and was furthered by XML, is exploding with the CM environment, where billions were spent last year and more billions are expected to be spent in the years ahead.

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CM Systems come in many shapes: They can be huge or small, simple or very complex.  They range from the very expensive (almost $300,000 for enterprise–wide systems like Vignette or Interwoven and $43,000 per server processor for Microsoft’s CMS to almost free (less than $1,000 for Manila
and nothing for Zope).

But they are all based on the same idea: CM allows designers to focus on design by building templates.  Subject experts build content in a separate environment.  The server takes the content, inserts it into the correct template and sends it all, neatly wrapped up, to end users.

CMS flow diagram.

But that’s just the technology side of CM systems.  CM’s other aspect is the way it addresses your workflow.  Sure, it’s great to separate the design from the content, but CM wants to streamline how your designs get approved and onto the server.

CMS flow diagram.

Create a design in whatever tool/environment you’re comfortable with.  Once it’s tested and ready to go, you pass it to your manager or editor or boss or whoever okays your design.  If it’s approved, it’s sent on to the server.  If not, you get notes and it is sent back to you, all within the CM environment: no email, no voice mail, no printouts of your design with red ink and yellow sticky notes all over it.  The same process happens on the content side.  The end result is that even though it’s easier for content and design to publish, there are still strict controls as to what makes it to the live server.

Content Management (CM), for many reasons and in as many forms, represents a tidal shift in web design.  And as a designer, you will need to find your place within the new CM world.

Onward Specialization#section2

With CM, designers get to specialize a bit.  How many web designers moonlight in their organization as tech support, teachers, and troubleshooters for other people’s web pages?  Why do so many do this?  Because content experts add to the website via a WYSIWYG program they are not familiar with.  So designers, the experts in such matters, become internal support for this bit of workflow jury—rigging.  That’s money down the drain for an organization.  Designers should design: it’s what we’re good at. 

With CM systems, the content experts add content in a more simplified manner.  Not through complex programs like FrontPage or GoLive, but through a simplified interface without all the design controls they don’t need.  (Often, CM interfaces are browser–based and have a learning curve closer to Notepad than Word.)

Content people can author a page, add metadata to the page for cataloging (commonly via XML), and edit existing pages.  Best of all, they are no longer burdened with distractions like Netscape 4.7 table issues or whether HTML tags are correctly nested or not.

When an end user requests a page, the server takes the content, adds it into your template, and serves it on the web.  Most CM systems allow you to design different templates for different browsers and serve the appropriate template based on the HTTP user agent info.  Some systems allow for advanced personalization or even multi-language versions.

But what does this mean for designers?  A lot.

Implications for Designers (the good news)#section3

Clearly, CM helps keep you from doing a lot of the non–design tasks that have become part of our job descriptions.  Designers can spend time building templates for all parts of the site.

Moreover, a template–based environment allows changes you make to templates to be approved and seen by end users in a matter of minutes, not days or weeks.  Changes you made to a template go through the normal workflow and are published to the server.  The next user who requests a page with that template gets the new version; it’s a lot like changing a server–side include.

Cascading Technologies#section4

Right now, most designers work with one hand tied behind their backs.  Most enterprises have finally gotten it in their heads that using only the newest technologies like CSS2, PNGs and XML will cause a majority of their audience to go away empty–handed.  They require designers to design a browser generation or two behind the state of the art.  While that’s a good practice in some ways, it means that you are limited to using technology that may not have changed in years.

Creating pages that abide by federal 508 accessibility standards and degrade gracefully in all browsers is a full-time job.  Since CM systems can differentiate between browsers (just like a browser sniffer), you can design a high–end template for Opera 5, Mozilla/N6 and IE5/6 users, a middle template for Netscape 4.x and IE 3 users, and another for Lynx, Jaws, and other screen readers.  You could even make a template just for WebTV users.  On some systems, the content can even be exported to Generator for fresh content in a Flash website, or to PDF for print–ready copies of all your pages.

And since the CM system adds the content to the template, you won’t have to do the redundant work of maintaining two or three entire versions of your website.

Implications for Designers (the bad news)#section5

Now that you can focus on design, a new issue appears: Will there be enough for a web designer to do?

A few years ago, the president of a mid–sized software company told me, “The purpose of any enterprise software is to make everything as efficient as possible, which means that some people will become unnecessary.”  An organization using CM may decide that paying a full-time designer is more expensive than hiring an outside party to redesign templates every couple of months.  So your survival may indeed be at stake.

What To Do About the Bad News#section6

So you may—surprise, surprise—have to do a little changing to survive.  Web design specialists may consider taking on more special projects or print work.  Scripters might consider a move towards web development.

Web generalists could face the biggest problems.  The role of the non–specialist is to “cover all the bases”—to make the cracks that appear between the specialists go away.  A well–implemented CM system enhances the role of the specialist by automating the interactions between specialists, making the generalist less necessary.

Perhaps the best chance a generalist may have is to become a consultant/designer for the organization, or to move up to the management level, where a generalist who knows the workings of all the web–side technology will be very valuable.

Chicken Little Was Wrong A Lot#section7

None of what we’ve discussed takes into account what CM does best: namely, CM grafts the best of your design skills to the ceaseless production needs of content providers—and at a much lower cost than old–school hand production methods.

Given its ability to build efficient workflows and get the most out of designers and content experts alike, CM will likely be a favorite for managers and executives looking to increase their web–based productivity for some time to come.

The final goal of any successful CM implementation is to make the creation of web content so easy that more people do it more often: they create more web–based projects and find more things to put out on the web.  An enterprise can begin complex projects like knowledge management or customer relation management, shifting resources (yes, you) from day–to–day web tasks to loftier and more complex design work.

And that will only make the designer more valuable.

About the Author

James Ellis

James Ellis recently relocated to Madison, and does his best to represent for the Wisconsin locals. He works for the state, posts almostly daily at Supersquish, and endlessly redesigns his personal site, Suite102.

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