The Flesh and the Soul of Information. Introduction | WebReference

The Flesh and the Soul of Information. Introduction

[Dmitry's Design Lab]
Dmitry Kirsanov's monthly column
April 1998
The Flesh and the Soul of Information
The skills needed for building a great Web site are not only those of an artistic nature.  To manage your information freely and efficiently, you'll need to understand some fundamental abstractions developed by philosophers and computer scientists.

This month's article is a bit unusual for the Design Lab.  My readers know that what has always interested me were not particularities of browsers, languages, or graphic programs, but the general principles of visual communication.  I hope I was successful in showing that you cannot make even the most basic, minute design decisions without mastering these fundamentals, without developing an integral concept system of Web design in your mind.

This time I decided to delve even deeper---by discussing not the principles of design per se, but the more general principles of information structure, content and presentation.  I'm undertaking this not merely because of a speculative frame of mind, but (as it was with my previous theoretical essays) because I was driven to it by my writer's and designer's practice.

Lately, I've had a chance to communicate with many different people concerned with Web development: visual designers who are mostly presentation-oriented, technology architects who are mostly structure-oriented, and customers who just need great Web sites for their businesses and are therefore vaguely "content"-oriented.  I found their views on the basics of information dissemination not only different, but sometimes incompatible---and therefore, I felt it necessary to formulate my own opinion on these issues, taking the most sensible ingredients from others' views and adding some observations of my own.

We'll need to research at first the origins of information abstractions, demonstrating how the stairway of abstract document representations, implemented in different software layers, helps to reveal the basic opposition of content and presentation.  Then we'll see how the ideology of separating content and presentation, pioneered by SGML, found its way (admittedly, not a very straightforward one) onto the Web.  Separation formalisms are only a part of the story, however, so it is important to consider to what extent these abstractions are applicable to the day-to-day document production with the technologies available at the moment.  Learning from examples where design is well fitted to content, we conclude that structure is the most important tool of uniting content and presentation aspects of a document.


Created: Apr. 19, 1998
Revised: Apr. 19, 1998