Examining the Separation Between Presentation and Content

Posted on June 15, 2013

The idea that content should be separate from presentation is so central to content management that’s it’s become a cliché – one of those things you say to sound like you know what you’re talking about (like “metadata is data – wait for it – about data”).

The overuse of this phrase is why I loved this paper from Dave Clark at UW Milwaukee entitled “Content Management and the Separation of Presentation and Content (PDF)."  Not content to just repeat the phrase over over, Dr. Clark deconstructs it and puts it in a historical context.

What does this actually mean?  To what extent and how are we separating content from presentation?

The idea isn’t new, it turns out.  Clark traces the idea back over the millennia:

[...] scholars are tapping into literally thousands of years of similar debate; rhetoricians, theorists, designers, artists, and architects have long debated the relationship between content and aesthetics, rhetoric and ornamentation, form and function, and medium and message.

In particular, I loved this comparison to politics:

For example, in political discourse, there is a tendency to think of presentation as “rhetoric,” separating the content of what is said (the truth) from how it is presented (the rhetoric); thus, the “Straight Talk Express” and the “No-Spin Zone.” This separation, of course, is ancient; as Gideon Burton notes in the “Silva Rhetoricae,” rhetoricians have long created and used a distinction “between what is communicated through language and how this is communicated.”

CMS compared to current political commentary?  I love it.  (No, not the commentary itself – I hate that.)

The hard truth, Clark argues, is that we’re chasing a White Whale:

I suggest as a corollary that no content is free of presentation, even in practical terms. Content and presentation are never separated, because even the most poorly formatted Notepad document has a presentation: layout, fonts, paragraph breaks, capitalization, headings. Authors writing for content management work with interfaces that offer authoring-specific presentations of their content. And even on opening the database of a content management system and examining the raw text contained in a content management system, one would still be examining a rhetorical presentation of an organization’s data, albeit one that wasn’t very helpful to most human users.

He goes on to differentiate between two types of separation:

This entire thing got me thinking deeply about the relationship of content and presentation, and I agree with Dr. Clark that you can’t separate the two, because what we think of content is has presentation baked into it in the form of the medium of communication.

The “content” of a document is not the words, after all, it’s the idea.  The core content is simply the abstract concept you are trying to convey to the consumer.  If you write this down, then the words are the presentation of that content.  If you recorded a video, the frames of the video would be the presentation.

In this sense, the content – the idea you want to communicate – is “wrapped” twice: once in a medium, and once in a presentation.  We look at content and medium together (text) and say, “well, that’s content."  Consequently, in the purest sense, we’re wrong right from the start.

If we’re trying to separate the two, where do we draw the line between:

  1. Content

  2. Medium

  3. Presentation

You simply can’t. They will always intermix.  You can be as clean as possible for your particular application, but there’s no way to draw a line, particularly between the first two.  Content and Medium combine to make some weird permutation of The Observer Effect.  To talk about a concept (the content), you have to record it in a medium, which in some way represents a layer of presentation.

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