What bugs me about content out

Recently there’s been much talk of “content out”, the idea that web design should be inspired by the qualities of the text and images of a site. It’s a healthy idea, but like any slogan, it is open to misinterpretation.

The web design industry has only recently afforded content its rightful status. We were wrong to relegate content to the role of a commodity – something we could pour into beautifully-crafted templates. In our rush to rectify this balance, we mustn’t overcorrect and deprecate the role of truly creative design.

From an algorithmic perspective, the idea that style and substance are separate is appealing. It allows us to code markup and stylesheets independently, and fits the logical mindset shared by so many techies. But it’s a falsehood. Style and substance are irretrievably linked. Like space and time, they are neither separable nor the same thing – there exists no hierarchy between them, no primacy. One informs the other. The other informs the one.

It’s impossible to perceive content and presentation separately. The two combine to create something more valuable: meaning.

The same content, with very different meanings.

Some of the best-known examples of the content out design principle are blogs from today’s leading digital lights. These sites feature expert typography, harmony and balance. They are undoubtedly beautiful. They also look terribly similar. Book design is the dominant aesthetic, meaning that the content does indeed shine. However, individuality surfaces only in esoteric flourishes. The people who have made these sites are diverse and bold, but these qualities often struggle to surface.

It’s a mistake to let content drive design, just as it was to let design drive content. We mustn’t let the pendulum swing too far. If we are to go beyond mere information and style to create meaning, the two must be partners, feeding from and influencing each other.

Until we see more diversity in the sites that espouse a content out approach, I worry the movement could be too simply characterised as one of minimalism – or worse, faddishness and elitism:

The idea that content can act as the interface is noble. But sometimes you need interface. The interactivity and responsiveness of the digital medium means it excels at interface. Text can often suffice, but it possesses limited affordances. It conveys information and gives instructions well, but it’s poor at conferring mental models, creating subconscious emotions, establishing genre, and suggesting interaction capabilities: things crucial for brand-driven sites or functional applications.

Overly-literal interpretation of content out could create a web of homogeneity. A web that conveys little that a book could not, save for hyperlinks and videos. A web that fails to take full advantage of the digital medium. For all our talk of breaking free of the print design mentality, content out risks reducing the capabilities of the digital medium, in favour of fetishising the craft of print design. That would truly undermine the intent of the approach.