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Sunday, March 18th, 2007, 6:16 am

WYSIWYG – Fine Layout, But What Happened to Content?

Internet Explorer 7 screenshot

THE “what you see is what you get” paradigm is a fine idea. This term, abbreviated WYSIWYG (and sometimes pronounced Wisi-wig), aptly describes the way we print our documents. From a particular image on our monitor we are able to produce paper replicas. But should the same paradigm be used for composition of our documents? Should layout itself be manipulated and controlled by the user in real time? Scott McNealy weighed in.

Scott McNealy, who used to like to style himself “chairman, president, founder, chief cook and bottlewasher” of Sun Microsystems, is not known for his affection for Microsoft. Quite the opposite. Speaking to the National Press Club of Australia way back in October 1996, he pronounced that “when the anthropologists look back on the 1980s and 1990s and do the archaeological digs, and get their callipers and brooms and microscopes out, they will blame the massive reduction in productivity during the 1980s and 1990s entirely on Microsoft Office.”

Indeed, there is too much emphasis on presentation at the writing phase. Instead of creating high-quality content, the writer can often be distracted by the desire and ability to turn text into its form in ‘output mode’. This is wasteful. It’s a case of jumping ahead too early and, in fact, spell checkers and grammar checkers which involve false positives lead to similar distractions. The composition, if done properly, should be a staged process. At each stage, full attention should be given to the task at hand.

Writing of good material can be handled in plain-text mode, only later to have the mind occupied with structural layout (as opposes to structure, which requires shallow preparation and planning, without diving in). A similar issue comes up when people prepare presentations in a way that concentrates on looks rather than delivery of concise and important messages. Here is one among many writings on the dumbing-down effect of tools like Astound, PowerPoint, Keynote, KPresent, and Presenter.

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship’s foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft’s well-known ”slideware” program.

One Response to “WYSIWYG – Fine Layout, But What Happened to Content?”

  1. Anita Says:

    At work, everyone always gives me a hard time for using vim as my draft editor, even for powerpoint presentations. I always find it so much easier to get the content down, then start my formatting magic.

    I’ll have to show them your article … now I know I’m not the only one who ignores format from the start.

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