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July 20, 2017

Full transcript of highly designed content podcast

00:03 Gretyl Kinsey: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode nine, we discuss strategies for producing highly designed content.


00:22 GK: Hello and Welcome. I’m Gretyl Kinsey, and I’m a Technical Consultant with Scriptorium Publishing.

00:28 Jake Campbell: Hi, I’m Jake Campbell, and I’m also a Technical Consultant at Scriptorium Publishing.

00:32 GK: And we’re here to talk about highly designed content. So just to start out, I wanted to get your take on what high design is.

00:42 JC: So, when you’re looking at your content, a good example of highly designed content is something like brochures or data sheets or safety information. Basically, any kind of content where it’s important that the formatting helps convey information to the reader, as opposed to purely functional documentation that mostly looks the same, anything like standard technical documentation, API guides, basic user guides, things like that where all of the information doesn’t necessarily need to be formatted in a very specific way.

01:18 GK: And that’s also a really good example of how a lot times you see high design used more often with marketing materials and that purely functional design used more with technical content. But there are some cases, as you mentioned, with things like data sheets and safety warnings, where technical content does need high design. As typically used for selling a product or calling attention to the most important information, and we’re seeing more convergence now between technical and marketing content when it comes to actually making a sale. More people are looking at things like data sheets and technical specs. So having that high design in some kinds of technical content is really good to call out that information and say, “Hey, buy the product based on this.” So in terms of actually producing that content, what is the difference in how you would create and publish highly designed content versus purely functional content?

02:22 JC: Okay. So I’m gonna have to get a little technical here. But when you’re looking at purely functional content, generally you’re going to be working with some sort of automated formatting work flow. And what that means is that you’re going to generally have your content in DITA. And for those who don’t know, DITA is the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. It’s basically just a fancy way to say, “This is a standard for storing information and categorizing it in a specific way so that when we take this content and turn it into something like a PDF or a web page, that all of the formatting comes out consistently because we’ve consistently tagged our content with what kind it is.” Generally with highly designed content, you have authors working directly in something like FrameMaker or InDesign where they’re creating content in the program and then applying paragraph and character styles to it in order to get their content to fall out in a way that they want on the page.

03:24 GK: So with automated formatting, the process of actually applying the way that the content’s going to look is done separately. The author does not actually do that. Whereas, when we were talking about more high design that’s done manually, the author is controlling that at the same time they’re creating content. And that brings up an interesting point about how, when you’ve got automated formatting, obviously the big benefit is that you can create your content separately and not have to spend time doing all that formatting. It’s just applied for you by a transform. But one of the disadvantages is that you might not be able to achieve everything that you need for high design. You could still have content that comes from an automated transform that looks great. You can really have a lot of control as far as the overall look, when it comes to generating it automatically through a transform. But what you can’t control is the individual aspects like where content breaks across pages, for example, the exact way that your images and your text might fall and where they’re placed. If you have certain tables that might need very specific formatting that’s different from all the other tables, that’s the kind of thing that you can’t really control in automated formatting. So in those cases, using automation doesn’t quite get you all the way to where you may need to be to achieve high design.

04:55 JC: One thing that you cannot do with automated formatting is achieve that one-off style without some way to identify how you’re going to apply that style. Now, that’s not to say that automated formatting versus high design is completely incompatible. Like Gretyl just said, it can get you most of the way there. But, for example, if you have, say, some friendly consultants who are helping you with your information architecture, we might be able to help you identify content in such a way to make sure that you can get as much design as possible with automated formatting.

05:34 GK: And then we also have ways, which we’ll get into a little bit later, that we can take you those last few steps, where maybe most of your content is done with automated formatting, but you also can take content that’s done in DITA and put it into InDesign so that you can have just a little bit of extra control over the way that formatting looks and really achieve that high design. And that’s where I wanted to turn things back over to you and talk about the solutions to this problem of balancing high design versus automation. And specifically, I wanted to bring up the idea of DITA and InDesign, which is where I know a lot of your experience is. And I know you’re laughing because this is a difficult problem, not an impossible one, but definitely difficult and full of lots of unexpected issues that come up sometimes.

06:31 JC: Yeah. Just as a bit of background, I came to InDesign in a very backwards way from most people. Most people will pick up InDesign, and they’ll start using it, and they’ll figure out a few things. My initial contact with InDesign came from working with Scriptorium’s InDesign transformation plugin. I started with what all the messy code looks like on the InDesign side of things and how to get DITA turned into that so that you can put that into an InDesign template to auto flow your content and automatically apply all that formatting that we’re talking about.

07:11 GK: And just as a bit of background for those who may be unfamiliar, DITA is a standard of XML. It’s used in a lot of technical communication as a structure that’s then has the formatting automatically applied to it. When we talk about this idea of separating content from formatting, authoring your content in DITA is one of the ways that that’s done. Whereas InDesign is pretty much the opposite of that. That’s a program where you’re controlling every single aspect of your page design, and you can have all of the fine-tuning that you want. Whereas when you’re writing in DITA, all of your formatting is just applied elsewhere through a transform.

07:57 JC: Right. So, basically, how the work flow goes is you have your authors create content in DITA. DITA uses a structure in order to ensure that everything is formatted consistently. And the DITA transform takes that XML content and then turns it into something that InDesign can understand and that will apply all of the formatting. That’s the most straightforward way to get your content from DITA into InDesign.

08:31 GK: What are some reasons why people have needed to take their DITA into InDesign?

08:39 JC: One of the clients we’ve worked with is moving all of their content into DITA. They have a CCMS that they’re working with. It consumes DITA and transforms it into various content. In that instance, they needed to have all of their content, marketing and technical, in DITA so that they could do that. That’s how they’re working with their InDesign transform there. There’s another client we were working with who wanted to make a move into DITA, and they wanted to have most of their content be automatically produced and then have a team of people working in InDesign performing final touch-ups for things that the transform couldn’t catch.

09:25 GK: And that brings up a point, as well, with the idea of taking content into InDesign for a little bit more high design than maybe an automated PDF transform could give you. ‘Cause I know we’ve had cases where someone will create content in DITA and then just use an automatic PDF transform to get their final PDF output. And in those cases, that’s good enough for them. But where you might need it to be a little bit more highly designed, it makes sense to take that DITA source, get it into InDesign, make the final tweaks that you had mentioned, and then export your PDF from there. It basically just adds another step to the process that allows you to still have all of your source content in a format that can be reused by other groups that can be automatically transformed in other ways. But just for getting those last few little design tweaks for your PDF, taking it through InDesign can really helpful. So, Jake, how exactly does this DITA-to-InDesign transform work? What are the ins and outs of it?

10:37 JC: Just in a very straightforward way, the transform works by taking your DITA content and basically gluing all of your DITA topics together into one big file, and then it feeds that into the transform, which you can think of as kind of a packaging machine. The transform will take a look at each block of information in your content and wrap it up in something that InDesign will understand. And the end result that you get from that is an ICML file, which InDesign is able to digest. You would take that and then place it into an existing InDesign document and autoflow it throughout, and then the formatting would be applied as you flow that content into it. To get a little bit more technical, the transform takes a look at all of your content, and by taking a look at the context of the elements and what the elements themselves are, it takes those individual bits of content and wraps them in paragraph style ranges, which is something that InDesign can understand.

11:55 JC: The end result of what you get is an ICML file, which is InCopy markup language, which consists of a story with a manifest of all of the styles and everything that you need in that document and then a series of paragraph and character style ranges that actually contain the content that you want to display along with any kind of specific paragraph or character styles that need to be applied to them. You then take that ICML file that was generated by the transform and place it in an InDesign template. And I say template but really just any blank document that has all of the paragraph styles that you need to reference available in it. And when you flow that content in there, InDesign says, “Okay, I’ve got a story, so this is gonna start flowing things out onto a page. And here’s a paragraph style range that gets the paragraph style, so it’s just your standard Times New Roman, align left, 12 point whatever. Oh, this is a table, it gets this table style.” It lays things out using whatever is inside the template in order to actually inform how the formatting looks.

13:08 GK: And that brings up another good point, which is the importance of having a well designed InDesign template, right? We’ve seen a lot of cases where people don’t use InDesign properly, and that affects their ability to go from DITA to InDesign.

13:26 JC: Right. The first initial hurdle when working with the InDesign transform is the tendency of authors to behave badly. Not necessarily in a malicious way, but applying the h3 style when you’re actually looking at an h2, if you’re looking at the structure of it, because the h3 style just looks better in this instance.

13:55 GK: I’ve seen a tendency as well for designers to do this, not only in InDesign, but also in FrameMaker and Word and other programs that involve having sort of a template with different styles defined, which is they take an existing style, and instead of using it as is, they just make changes to it. And then that style kind of gets added into their template by mistake and used in other places, so you sort of lose control over any consistency that you may have had in your design. And then later when you get a situation like this, where you’re trying to get DITA content that is structured into an unstructured program like InDesign, it causes a lot of problems.

14:41 JC: Right. And it’s really important if you’re working with a DITA-to-InDesign transform, or anything like that, to make sure that your templates are properly curated. And what I mean by that is making sure that you don’t have duplicate styles, that your style names are clear. I have seen instances where I had to meet with a client specifically because they needed their cover to have this particular style on it. Except, there were four individual styles that appeared to map to the title on the cover page. There was cover title, title, cover title new, and cover title old. And there was no real way to figure out which one was the one that needed to be used. If you wind up having anything like that, either name them such that it’s really clear where they need to be used and why, or just trim out the old ones.

15:44 GK: And having a style guide will help with that. I know one of the biggest things that we recommend, just from a content strategy angle in general, is if you don’t have a style guide, establish one. And this is true, whether it’s a design based style guide when you’re working with programs like InDesign, or whether it’s just a content based style guide if you’re completely just working in a structured environment and all of your design is applied automatically afterward. Having rules and style guides set that everyone needs to follow, really helps make sure that consistency is in place so that when you need to do highly designed content in a system or in an environment that is largely automated and structured, it really helps avoid some of those problems that we’ve just talked about. In another one of our recent podcasts, we talked about the convergence between technical content and marketing content, and how that’s started to grow more common over time, that you’re seeing overlap between these two different types of content. And I wanted to ask you how this idea of DITA and InDesign being used together with this transform can help with that convergence?

17:07 JC: It’s really useful, primarily because you wanna make sure that your content is consistent. When you are putting your content in DITA, you actually can reuse that content elsewhere. That’s more important for the technical side of things, but it could also be very useful for the marketing side of things.

17:29 GK: Right. And if we’ve got techcom and marcom that have maybe some pieces of content that both of them need to use in their materials, like I had said, data sheets, technical specifications, that kind of thing, it may appear in your technical documentation. It may also appear on your marketing website or maybe in handouts and things like that, that are used by the marketing team. Having that content in DITA, where it can be shared and reused, helps a lot with efficiency, and it saves time because you don’t have to rewrite that content, both in the technical department and the marketing department. You just have it in one place where both groups can reuse it, and then it’s always consistent because they’re reusing it from the same source, and yet each group can format it however they need to. But this may be a case where, for example, marketing has a DITA-to-InDesign transform that they’re using, whereas for techcom, maybe they just have something like DITA-to-PDF or DITA-to-HTML. But with that same content, if you’ve got one group that needs to have more design control over it, then that’s where something like that transform can really come into play and be helpful for the entire company’s content strategy.

18:48 GK: Another thing is that when you have these two different departments sharing content, they can all get the benefits of DITA without having to sacrifice the high design aspect. I know a lot of times people will get nervous when a company says, “Let’s go into structured content so we can automate everything.” Particularly, designers who are used to having a lot of design control will have a lot of resistance to that change sometimes and worry that they’re gonna lose that level of high design that they’ve been used to producing. But when you’ve got technology available like this DITA-to-InDesign transform, that can help reduce some of those worries because then you can say, “You can still have your design control, but we all need to have the content in the same source,” and so you kind of get all of those benefits and also can reduce some of that change resistance and make your content strategy implementation, hopefully go a little bit more smoothly. [chuckle]

19:52 JC: Right. And actually it’s a very good opportunity for your authoring group and your design group to get together and make sure that everything works well together, because it’s… One of the primary difficulties in getting something from DITA to InDesign is that InDesign can have numerous variations on a single style. There’s not really a way to cleanly code that in DITA, so you need to weigh the benefits of something like specialization, where you create a new element or a new topic type to, say, “This particular element gets this specialized kind of styling,” or using some kind of specialized structure in order to inform the transform to say, “We need this special kind of output.” So it’s a really good opportunity to take a hard look at your content and figure out what the best way is to actually semantically store that information.

20:55 GK: And it can also help reduce the problem of misusing structured content just to get the design you want. We’ve seen a lot of cases of that as well, where people will use existing styles in DITA in ways that they’re not intended just so that the output will look a certain way. But if you get in a situation like we’re talking about where you have authors and designers and maybe techcom and marcom people coming together and really taking a closer look at their content, both in terms of structure and design, that can help reduce that problem as well, of people misusing DITA elements as well as misusing things like styles in InDesign. And so, overall, it will make all of the content more consistent which will just improve the nature of the high design. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me about high design, and thank you all for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.