A long break since my last blog. No shortage of things to write about, but lots of other commitments that take me away from this particular enjoyable task, both mentally and physically.

One of these commitments was an in-depth review of Content Management Systems (CMS) software and design.

A CMS is a web-based framework, like this blog, into which we scribblers can pour content or any other material that can go on the web. The CMS makes sure that my scribblings are properly dated, catalogued, archived, and, most importantly, made available in an easily accessible and readable form. CMS create the framework for conversations between organisations and individuals on the internet. They provide the themes, styles, formats, layouts and general management of websites for people who otherwise have no knowledge of how websites are structured and organised.

CMS, over the last few years, have become the preferred framework for many large and small-scale websites. They have become the link between organisations and individuals, allowing organisations to have conversations with their publics. Our own website uses such a system for our publications, courses, and, as I have just pointed out, my blogs; and we are in the process of progressively moving our entire site over to such systems, as time and funds permit. But we are a minnow compared to large-scale use of such systems by corporate organisations. My review was prompted partly by our own needs and partly by the growing number of our members who seek our advice on such systems.

I won’t bore you with all the technical stuff, but three things strike me from a communication and information design point of view, that might interest you: one positive, and two problematic.

The positive is that most of the best of these systems are created as open-source software. Vast networks of developers give many hours of their own time to collaboratively develop, refine and debug the software through a process of peer review. The outcomes of this collaboration are freely available from the internet to download and use.

That is the positive face of open-source CMS: they are being developed in a public context for public usage, and consequently have the potential to be more sensitive to the everyday needs of non-technical users, which is less likely for systems that are developed behind closed doors away from the public.

The two problematic issues arise from their relative newness.
First, at this stage they are crude and basic, like pidgin languages concerned with a very limited set of transactions. But unlike pidgin, which can develop quite rapidly into a comprehensive, complex language of its own in the cut and thrust of everyday exchange, the exchanges that occur via CMS are remote from each other, and misunderstandings are not so easily corrected. Refinements to improve and subtly enhance the dialect are painfully slow.

Second, underlying any graphic system is the practice of typography ? with web-based systems like CMS it is the typography not of words on a page, but words on a screen. Over the past centuries, typographers have been continuously creating and modifying typefaces and layouts to suit all contexts. But it is clear that many (though not all) involved in designing CMS have a fairly primitive understanding of typography and how to effectively organise words on a screen so that they are both legible and usable. Few end users of these systems have the knowledge to judge the designs; they take the packages on trust, take them straight out of the box, and pick a theme or set of templates off the shelf. Thus the poor typography in the original designs carries through into the many manifestations that are the norm now throughout the web.

I took a close look at some of the typographical specifications for a number of these systems, most of which are in the Cascading Style Sheets(CSS) and templates which are used to control the appearance of text and graphics on the screen. Using fairly conventional typographical principles, I found that most of the out-of-box designs could be significantly enhanced not by adding features or changing them, but by REMOVING them.

Most of what I removed were lines, boxes, and spaces. CMS uses lots of boxes to demarcate between the many functions on a screen. Now, there are one or two bad reasons for using boxes as a graphic device, and many good (aesthetic and practical) reasons not to. Alongside what the principles of typography say about such devices, research shows that the use of graphic devices such as boxes to highlight something on a page or screen can have the opposite effect.

But the use of boxes is just one of many detailed points at which this emerging symbolic system falls short of what is possible through the simple application of known principles and findings. I said in an earlier blog that the performance of many websites falls below that of printed material. It seems that part of the reason for this is inherent in the underlying CMS systems on which they are built.

Dysfunctional conversations between organisations and individuals are remarkably persistent, as any individual who has to deal with governments and many large corporations knows. It would be a shame if such open collaboratively-developed systems such as CMS aided in maintaining those dysfunctional practices rather than in releasing us from them.