WYSIWYG: What You Structure Is What You Get

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


We in the publishing industry still treat print as our main focus. This makes perfect sense because our focus has practical publishing as well as solid business justifications. However, this does not necessarily justify all the attention we give to the visual aspects of our publications. As discussed in previous newsletters, relying on our “eye” can be detrimental to the publishing process.

Despite that, our industry is focused on developing additional tools to facilitate the ability to operate within a WYSIWYG environment. There are a number of problems with this approach. Focusing on the appearance of something often causes us to lose sight of the semantic value of applying visual distinction to it. For example, our use of bold-faced type is usually used to indicate some kind of structure in a document. A single word presented as bold may be a term that is defined in a glossary, or it may be used to indicate emphasis. Similarly, we use font size, type, spacing, leading, and indentation to convey grouping of ideas, to indicate shifts in meaning, or for various other purposes. It is clear that creating visually attractive publications is exceedingly important and that design counts for a lot.

But the purpose of good design is not merely to be aesthetically appealing. Good design conveys the ideas within our books, indicates which ideas or episodes are connected, and alerts us to shifts in presentation. And when done well, design even conveys mood. Therefore, it is important that we not lose sight of the purpose of design standards by focusing solely on the way things look to us.

This is precisely what happens when we insist on “what you see is what you get” environments. In these environments, we focus on the appearance of things instead of defining what they are. This allows us to get the look we want, but along the way, we lose the ability to convey meaning and structure in our publications. “What you see is what you get” can result in numerous problems that defeat the purpose of our attention to design.

First, it sets the stage for inconsistent markup for the same element. If we worry about the appearance attributes instead of the meaning of something, we can define an element in a number of ways. In thousands of files that we have reviewed, Scribe has seen many examples of publications where the same structural element is built in various and inconsistent ways. It can cause us to add unwanted components or lose information. For example, a visual break or hard hyphen can carry into other formats as errors instead of good layout. Special fonts or other associations can be lost. While not a necessary result of “what you see is what you get,” the practical outcomes of this type of focus are that our content becomes inconsistent and has numerous problems with spaces, paragraph breaks, odd layouts, split words, and the like. Furthermore, when the complexity of a publication and the pressure under which it is produced increases, these types of problems will inevitably grow.

Every piece of software that we use interprets markup to render things visually. This is the case for Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, e-book readers, web browsers, and PDF readers. These programs parse a code set to make files display “correctly” on a screen. They accomplish this by either reading a style and rendering it in a specific way or reading the particular attributes around an individual element and displaying it in an ad hoc fashion. If the attributes are particular, then each program may interpret them differently. If, however, the coding and its accompanying rendering are consistent, then the result will be consistent.

Currently, this may seem like an unimportant issue. Tools are being developed to work around the typical problems associated with “what you see is what you get.” Applications of HTML5 have developed work-arounds so that these problems don’t seem to be manifested as frequently as in the past. We get the sense that e-readers will finally get to the point where they display content as well as Word or InDesign. But once again, we are being lulled into relying on the visual.

The problem is that these are only temporary fixes to the problems that we are creating. As e-book technologies develop, the ability to use structure to improve discoverability, to make books more accessible, to enhance books in a variety of ways, to link content, to create custom publications, to chunk, or to realize any of the other myriad possibilities that the electronic environment promises requires that our focus be on the structure and semantic meaning of the content we produce. It requires that we are conscious of that structure and the methods by which we convey meaning. While focusing on the visual may be appealing at the moment, it clearly limits the potential and future uses of our publications.

We must focus on the structure of content and learn to better display and convey that structure. We must end the “what you see is what you get” mentality. When we focus on the importance of structure, we can eliminate the inconsistencies and enable greater potential for our content. It is only when we realize that what we structure is what we get that we will be able to take full advantage of our publications.