Lorem ipsum, 18th century novels, and a new Red Gate website

I came across three things a while back that made me smile:

The third is sort of the sum of the first two: function without form, then form without function, then a compromise of placeholders for each.

I’m trying very hard not to say “It’s funny because it’s true.”

But if any of that raises the kind of half-guilty recognition smirk of observational comedy, then you may well have a problem.

Nearly a year ago, the internet fought through another round of the  lorem ipsum furore. In the nervous truce that followed, the consensus seemed to be that yes, you can wireframe without being shot, provided you remember that design and content need to live together at the end.

Shortly after this, unconnectedly, Red Gate fought through another round of “isn’t it time we updated the website?”. This time we actually meant it. So we did that thing we do and in a haze of enthusiasm, innovation, and nostalgia for the start-up days: we locked some folks in a room and told them they could come out when it was done.

For the first few weeks, our lucky detainees were the (awesome) Red Gate UX team. They’ve blogged about the experience. As you can imagine, I was a little nervous.

You see, the exciting part of the Lorem Ipsum fight is the counter-argument, the point the Onion piece makes far better than I ever could: a bare content stack is just as useless as a content-free wireframe.

It would be easy for a “designer” and a “writer”, each toiling away with little contact to both forget that they were working together to make a meaningful user experience with a delineated business purpose. Their skill sets are superficially worlds apart, and since their outputs can be delivered separately, it tends to fall out that they are. Projects have schedules, after all; and it’s not quite desirable that every <p> tag be a committee decision. Personally, I reckon this is why we need a new website now: our design and content requirements have become… shall we say somewhat syncopated.

The key of course is “little contact”. Plenty of interaction, a shared understanding of scope, and a healthy mutual review process ought to ensure that no matter how much lorem ipsum or how little photoshop get used at each stage, the outcome serves its purpose.

Print media has known practically forever that although form and function can be separated to no ill effect, they are stratospherically more powerful when treated as parts of the same thing. Consider BLAST (full text here) or Paris (pdf), or Google’s Chrome ads, novels like House of Leaves and Tristram Shandy, or any number of magazines, books, or billboards. Or comics – a publishing sector that’s had this licked more or less since its inception.

People making the web sort-of-know it’s no different. But as soon as doing something takes two humans, unfortunately you need them to cooperate. I can’t help but wonder how much of the content/presentation separation we see is a result of one group of folks wanting to “just get my stuff done” without external dependencies, or all that pesky collaboration*. Again, that’s fine in the short term. My stuff might be a block of text, and your stuff might be a page layout. The user? They see our stuff. And our stuff is a web page, and they don’t want to see the joins.

Happily, in the end I didn’t need to worry about the web project for two reasons. First off: the design team were  working with a vast body of feedback about the information architecture and content delivery requirements of various sectors of the business. Up second: they dragged pretty much every other content developer into the maelstrom with them. In fact, I’ve only just fought my way out.

For the last few weeks I’ve been the web dungeon’s content-monkey-resident. The process of actually implementing the new site requires a phenomenal content migration. This has been the ideal opportunity to get our grubby little content strategy fingers all over the site. So in the interest both of cutting down the workload and of producing a new site where content and design actually do work together, Tech Comms and Marketing have been doing a fair bit of the heavy lifting. This means everybody has had to engage with everybody else’s world a little.

It’s not a bad blueprint for web projects. Sure, let your designers go and do the wicked-creative of- the-wall stuff, but first talk to everyone. Get folks to look at architecture and content examples from all over the place, and tell you what they like, what they don’t, and then what they want to be delivering themselves. The migration phase is an excellent time to curate, and yet another way to keep people involved. And for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, do it all collaboratively,  preferably in the same room.

So I’m pretty optimistic about our new site, and a big part of that optimism is that I’m fairly sure I wont have to tear anybody a new one over templates and layouts that just aren’t appropriate to the content.

I’ll be doing a proper post on the new Red Gate website once it’s launched. Also, I’ve got through this whole article without using the word “stakeholders”, and frankly I believe I deserve a cookie.

*Some, obviously, comes from content creators fatalistically internalising the idea that they’ll never get allocated any development resource. But that’s a whole separate rant.