The challenge of separating content from presentation in a CMS

William Hart-Davidson defines a content management system (CMS) as a “set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (pg. 130). Basically, a CMS sits on top of your content and assists with the following functions:

  • Topic management: searchable, reusable content
  • Single-source publishing
  • Translation/localization workflow
  • Collaborative development and version control
  • Central output format management

Furthermore, Davidson claims that a best practice of content management includes the

“Need to separate content from presentation (pg. 130).”

But just how difficult is it to separate information from presentation and design?

In my experience, it is very difficult. While it is relatively easy to use the same chunks of content (e.g., single XML files) in multiple output formats, it is not easy to customize the design, format, and style of an information product. Let me explain.

We are currently implementing SDL LiveContent as our CMS. It is very expensive, and due to budget restrictions, my manager went with the basic, out-of-box implementation. In addition, we are required to provide two types of output—PDF and HTML—for every major software release. To create PDF output, we must develop stylesheets to transform our XML to XSL-FO. XSL defines the presentation of XML objects and properties that specify the page format, page size, font size, and paragraph/table/heading/list styles. However, since we went with the basic SDL LiveContent implementation, the difficult, time-consuming task of developing stylesheets for XML to XSL-FO transformation must be done by ourselves. (SDL LiveContent offers services to create the stylesheets, but it is very expensive.)

If we don’t develop stylesheets, we will have little control over the presentation (also referred as “signposting” in chapter 2) of our content. This is unacceptable to my manager, as she expects all of our content to continue to have our professional, company-branded formatting.

If this wasn’t complicated enough, SDL LiveContent recommends a different professional formatting solution from the one that we currently use (and have already spent a lot of time customizing that stylesheet). We all agree that we do not need to have two or three publishing tools to generate a PDF or HTML. We also don’t want to have a complicated, manual workflow process that takes the content from our CMS, generates output (PDF and/or HTML), and then stores it back in the CMS. We don’t have someone on our team who can write scripts to do that and there isn’t a bridge to connect the CMS with our current publishing tool.

Ideally, we want to have our content stored in one repository, and from there, we want to be able to generate output on an ad hoc, as needed basis. We want to click a button—have all the magic happen—and then view the PDF that has a beautiful, professional layout. How we get there is my responsibility over the next few months, but I’m convinced that we will have to ditch our current publishing tool and will have to develop brand new stylesheets.

About peahleah

Youngest of four, left home at 17, traveled the country, and wound up in Austin.

Posted on October 5, 2014, in Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You have me convinced it’s difficult to separate content and presentation. And that your CMS is complicated. At work we use Smart Office ( which is one of the places at work we are to store information. I can tell you that I rarely use it as it is cumbersome and not user friendly.

    Good luck with your CMS project (keep us posted)!

  2. natashajmceachin

    I unfortunately have no experience in this arena as I am at the beginning of my career. This chapter honestly made little sense to me as I couldn’t exactly relate and grasp the concept. However, you seem to have a good grasp on this one. Great post!

  3. Leah, I’m so glad you are able to bring in these examples from your workplace. Perhaps this is a topic you can continue to focus on as the semester progresses and let it become the prime focus of your final paper!

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