As web content management systems are adopted by broader numbers of organizations, content producers should demand tools that can (at the individual article level) provide content-appropriate, customizable and compelling design, said designer Greg Wood in a presentation at the ExpressionEngine/CodeIgniter 2010 conference Wednesday in San Francisco.

Controlling Design and Layout is a Must

The ability to control design is a basic necessity for presenting multiple facts or dense information and statistics in visually interesting ways, and design variation helps facilitate remembering and deepen understanding, while uniform and bland presentation discourages readers from engaging with the content, said Wood, a Web and print designer with Erskine Design, an agency based in Nottingham, England.

Compare a magazine or newspaper's print and online editions, Wood said, and you can instantly see that there is much more variation, and a much more compelling reading experience, in print than in the online publication. It's time for readers to demand a similar level of concern with design, he said.

"Size and position are arguably the definition of layout," Wood said, but many CMS-driven sites are not built to give content editors the ability to control these simple aspects of a story's content -- though they could be. His own site, has a unique design for each blog post, following the model demonstrated by designer Jason Santa Maria, who makes a unique CSS style sheet for each blog post.

Some try to blame this lack of design variety on the tools, Wood said. However, print publications also have had to solve problems of dealing with high volumes of content with limited resources, and they have responded by using a grid system, by choosing standard type faces and color palettes, and by re-using common layouts while still varying them according to article content.

Power to the Editor

Furthermore, by giving control to the editor over thoughtful, pre-configured design choices, you can guide inexperienced content editors to make sophisticated design decisions, Wood said.

Wood showed how, with about 10 quick fields, a site editor would be able to use simple menus at the individual article level to be able to fully visually transform the layout of an article without any direct CSS or HTML knowledge needed. These changes would not affect the ability of the content to be re-used in multiple mediums, but would create a much more compelling entry point into the article if viewed in a Web browser.

10 Attributes to a Better Article Design

These 10 attributes, if attached at the article level, would give any content producer the tools needed to create an excellent intro paragraph that would make an article more memorable and pleasant to read, according to Wood.

  1. headline_color
  2. headline_position
  3. headline_size
  4. headline_typeface
  5. intro_image
  6. intro_text_color
  7. intro_background_color
  8. intro_background_opacity
  9. intro_position
  10. page_background_color

Attendees to the presentation debated the merits of giving that level of layout control to untrained designers, and many were doubtful that the editor could be "trusted" with these choices.

"There's no magic design or tag that will solve design issues," Wood said, but these tools would be a step in the right direction.

The EECI2010 conferences, organized by Whoooz Webmedia, are events for ExpressionEngine and CodeIgniter developers. The next one will be in Leiden, Netherlands, in October 2010.