The Bits and Pieces V: Content Management (Theory)

So you have a content model, and an authoring tool, and a good support system for your users, and everybody is happy and excited and all your XML dreams are coming true. And the writers start writing, and they’re just bursting with creativity and having flashes of brilliance as they tag the content in the user-friendly authoring tool, and they get done and go to File/Save As and are asked where to put the file. And then your dream comes crashing down.

Where DO you put the files?

As always, it depends on what you’re going to do with them. In the, let’s call it, least automagic workflow, you can treat the XML files just like you’d treat any text files that will eventually be put into a page layout application. You’ll divide them up however your page layout templates demand. They’ll be named according to your naming convention. You’ll save them onto a server, or a firewire drive, or a 5.25″ floppy, or whatever you do. It doesn’t much matter because the files will be manipulated by people. Possibly by manipulative people, but that’s an issue for HR.

In a somewhat more automagic workflow (semi-automagic?), the files will be manipulated in a quasi-automated (hemi-manual?) fashion, maybe through watched folders and scripts. A person puts a file in a folder, and an automation does something with it. Somebody else retrieves the altered file and does something else with it. It’s like a manual/automatic partnership. Humans and machines working together for the betterment of all (though mostly the Humans). The XML files in this one would be just like the XML files in the previous example. They’ll contain whatever content chunk the workflow requires, and can be stored wherever digital files are stored. Some upfront work is needed to set up the scripts and whatnot, but eliminating those repetitive/dull tasks is more than worth the effort.

We, naturally, went for the full-on, completely automagic solution. The idea is solid: users interact with the content in whatever capacity they’d normally iteract with it. Writers write, editors edit, artists art, and we all go home at the end of the day satisfied with our contributions. The content management system meanwhile takes all those contributions and cuisinarts them into something we can sell. There are literally menu items like File/New/Print Publication and Tools/Create Online Version.

In order for this to work, all the business requirements, the technical requirements, the design requirements, the editorial guidelines, the workflow constraints, the very living soul of the organization has to be collected and distilled down to whatever format the content management system can deal with. And that, as you might imagine, is hard. It requires heartrending introspection. What do we do? How do we do it? Why do we do it that way?

The content management system will house everything that goes into the products you make. All the raw materials like text content and illustrations and video clips and those audio files of native German speakers asking quiz questions. You’ll need to be able to put new ones in and find the old ones.

The content management system will also be programmed to manipulate those raw materials. So it’ll have to be set up so that it knows what raw materials to pull and what to do with them.

Since all your stuff is in there, you’ll probably want to control who has access to it, so there will be some administrative stuff that will have to be dealt with on an ongoing basis.

This thing will be the users’ main interface with your XML workflow system. They’ll probably come to think of it as the XML workflow application–what they log onto in the morning and swear at as the day goes on. Ease of use is critical here. If it takes 12 steps to get at the XML content, the user is going to be in a very bad mood before they even get to the XML stuff.

Next time I’ll detail some of the practical considerations in setting up a content management system. And by that I mean I’ll share all the stupid things we did and should never, ever, do again.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

I’ve always hated that little cartoon that says “better, faster, cheaper — pick any two” and not just because it’s alway accompanied by an awful cartoon of doughy little men doubled up laughing. (I’ve always been influenced by bad graphics, perhaps overly so.) It’s a fact of life, especially these days, that we need to be able to do things more quickly than ever and to keep costs as low as possible, but it does not necessarily follow that the only way to do so is to reduce the quality as well. In fact, it might be argued that quality is even more important now because you don’t want to risk alienating a repeat client or a potential customer just to save a buck. As we all know, among the best ways to work faster (and, therefore, cheaper) are those that make the computer do a lot of the work for you and/or remember frequently utilized tasks.

Adobe Illustrator is an amazingly powerful tool, so much so that I’m alway finding new ways to use it, often by accident. I will look at something — a photo, some other piece of art, maybe even an actual 3D right-in-front-of-me thing — and try to see it in terms of how I could recreate it in Illustrator. Sometimes it will involve using Gradient Mesh to get a photorealistic effect, other times it will mean reducing it to basic geometric forms to convey the impression of what I’m seeing. Every new trick or observation adds to my arsenal of skills, even the ones that don’t work out as I’d hoped.

In this blog I hope to share some of the ways I’ve learned how to make Illustrator make me look good. Get yourself a good-sized external drive, because a lot of it involves building a library of Brushes, Symbols, Graphic Styles, and Swatches and you will be compiling a vast inventory of images and templates. (It might even eventually cover ways to actually catalog your work so you can call items up when you need them; there are a lot of image collection resources out there in a variety of price ranges.)

I will also be sharing ways I’ve streamlined my workflow, shortcuts I’ve learned, and each week I hope to include a free download of some Illustrator element that ties into the topic of the post, starting with this one, a Symbol I originally posted to the Adobe Exchange community a few years ago that this past year has turned up all over the web. If you’ve missed out on it somehow, now you can have your own string of lights to deconstruct and enjoy!


Introducing Robin

Last week I hinted that there would soon be a Fantastic Fourth contributor here at Publicious. Today I can reveal who that person is. Her name is Robin Storesund. Robin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and trainer with a wealth of experience and amazing skill.

When I first started working with her, many moons ago, I thought of her as the FreeHand Lady. I was an Illustrator guy, and never really “got” FreeHand. For me, it was like trying to draw right-handed (I’m left-handed). Always awkward. So I admired the fact that she could figure out FreeHand and actually make art with it. In the years since then, Robin became the first person I ever knew to become just as adept at Illustrator. Now, you can find her artwork in all kinds of places, from books to iPhone apps. On top of that, she’s a great trainer too. When she’s not making cool things, she’s teaching others how to make their own. Robin’s a trainer for Apple, and she’s been inside the Mothership in Cupertino. I am, of course, insanely jealous. And I feel very lucky to have her as a contributor to Publicious.

Welcome, Robin!

Lunchtime Links: The Bailout Bonus Edition

Now that the corporate malfeasance has been dealt with by a powerful surge of re-branding, AIG can go back to standing for “anchored inline graphic.” Whew! For a minute there I was worried we were all screwed. At least now the printers will be happy with all the millions spent on new business cards, stationery, signs, etc.

I just posted a way of using GREP styles with Preview in InDesign to play and learn GREP with fewer tears and gnashing of teeth.

A few other popular GREP reources:

Master Yoda was actually speaking of GREP when he famoulsy croaked, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” He also said of Peter Kahrel’s GREP in InDesign CS3, “A better $10, you will not spend, my young apprentice.”

BBEdit’s GREP tutorial

JetSet Communications Adventures in GREP.

The InDesiger’s Undocumented Bit of GREP Gold.

GREP-free links

This summer Montreal will play host to the XML alpha geek community when the Balisage 2009, conference hits town. Montreal, summer, XML, oui, oui, oui! Anyone interested in being a speaker must submit a paper by April 24th. Ahem, Mr. Damitz, I’m looking at you…

Counting human beans: maybe the AIG bonuses wouldn’t have happened if the execs’ performance had been subjected to this kind of scrutiny.

If you like your graphic design preserved with a good dose of sodium benzoate, check out the magnificent decontrstuction of Pepsi’s new look. at Before&After.

NCAA, meet PDF: in Adobe’s Ultimate Tourney Guide. (Acrobat 9′er required). You only have to pay for it if your picks all lose. Call it a virtual vig. 😉

Lastly: Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for exactly five years ago. When Adobe was touting the new CS as the most important box of software you’d see for the next five years. Guess they didn’t see the fact that in five years, there wouldn’t BE any software in boxes. They were clearly living in the past. If the cloud people have their way, in five years, there won’t be any software on my computer.

See ya, kids. I’m off to collect my bailout bonus: a bowl of Ramen.

An Obvious Observation

I’ll take a break this week from the steady march of progress in developing an XML workflow to reflect on one of the major challenges in doing so. It’s so obvious you might not consider it. It also may be impossible to avoid or correct.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll share with you my relationship with Illustrator. In my job, I sometimes have to go in and make text corrections in Illustrator files. Sometimes I have to do a color correction or figure out why a particular file won’t rip. I have a technical relationship with Illustrator. I know what the buttons and menus and palettes are for.

When I was in college I took some art classes to round out my liberal arts degree. I had of course taken art all throughout my education as this was during the time when schools still had funding for and interest in things like art and music. By the time I was in that college class it wasn’t as if I’d never put smudgy art pencil to paper before. Of course the results were consistent with my previous attempts. It turns out my brain doesn’t have the upgrade required to transform 3-D reality to a 2-D surface via smudgy pencil. Or any pencil for that matter. In one particularly annoying episode, my art teacher physically moved my hand to show me how a particular curve was supposed to look. I think it was the top of a pot. My version looked like something Picasso whipped up during his cubist period in an absinthe haze. That’s not what the teacher was looking for.

So, now, I don’t need a smudgy art pencil, I can use Illustrator. That should solve my problem! The computer will fix everything! Computers make everyday tasks so much more convenient. Have you figured out the obvious observation? Illustrator won’t do jack for me BECAUSE I CAN’T DRAW. Blank computer screen or blank paper, doesn’t matter, I can’t draw so anything I do will look wrong.

And here’s the crazy part. I can take classes, read books, go to seminars, do anything, but in the end, based on prior experience and my gut feeling, I’m not going to be able to draw. I understand the concept, I just can’t do it.

In a class discussion once someone made the comment that they couldn’t play the piano. The teacher said that was not correct–it’s not that the kid couldn’t play the piano, it’s that the kid didn’t know how to play the piano. The implication is that with proper training the kid could eventually learn how to do it. That’s nice and all, but what if the kid didn’t have the manual dexterity or the mental upgrade needed to transform dots on a music staff to sounds coming out of an instrument? If it was that easy wouldn’t we all be concert pianists, or in my case, expert artists?

The same issue arose with some of our writers when we implemented XML. They’re good writers, and they understood the concept of XML, but for whatever reason they were unable to transform the idea they wanted to get across into a content model. The could see the available tags, but didn’t know how to go about assigning them to their words. It wasn’t a question of training or facility with the software, it was a deeper disconnect that no amount of practice or help could fix. They’d always end up with files that needed to be cleaned up by someone else. And in the process, they were discouraged, annoyed, and slowed down, causing frustration.

So what do you do if you’re working with a person, or are the person, so frustrated by the XML workflow? All you can do is support them the best you can. Maybe they’ll have a breakthrough.

If you or your colleague never has that breakthrough, like I never did with drawing, then all the support may help reduce some frustration, but you’ll still need to clean up those files after they’re done with them. I’d recommend  building this step into your workflow from the beginning. If it clicks with everybody, then maybe you can drop it later. But if you start with the expectation that every writer is going to be able to tag content correctly all the time, you’re going to have problems with staffing and schedule. And that’s the most obvious observation: expect success but prepare for less.

X-Treme Rogue Spots: Issue 1

Sometimes when I’m creating templates I feel like an X-Men style mutant. Able to see things others don’t see or care about. Finding latent threats hidden in plain view. Finding myself enthralled with a single-dimensional world where colors are brighter than the real world. (Hey, it’s been pretty gray in Chicago lately.)

And one of the things that I find myself running into pretty frequently, especially with files that have been saved up from a previous version of InDesign, is something I like to call rogue swatches. (Now do you get the X-Men reference?)

Anyway, I opened a file recently to turn it into a template. There were several pieces of art that had been linked but that I wasn’t given. I knew that these art pieces were going to be placed in the final document by someone else and I didn’t need the art to create a template. And I knew that my document was going to be printed in 1-color. And that color was the very acceptable, but very boring Black.

However I couldn’t find the unwanted Pantone spot swatch in my document and went through every paragraph style and character style trying to find where it was used. I didn’t have the linked art to see which piece of art might be bringing the swatch into my palette so I decided to delete everything to try to find it. I deleted all the art frames, all the paragraph styles, all the character styles, all the object styles, all the table and cell styles. I ended up with a document that only had guides in it, and that blasted swatch.


The designer confirmed that there should be no spot colors in the final document. So I began looking for other methods of deletion. Based on several websites (none of which had the cognitive abilities of Professor Xavier) I created a set of steps that seem to work most of the time.

Step 1
Choose “Select All Unused” in the Swatches palette. You should be able to “Delete Swatch” by clicking the trash can icon. If it is greyed out like the screenshot above, then move on to the next step.

Step 2
Export your document as an Interchange Document. Open the .inx file you’ll find located on your hard drive. Try to delete the unused swatches again. Not feeling super-powered yet?

Step 3
Create a new InDesign file. Select all of the unused swatches and delete them. Grab your rogue swatch from your original file and drag it to this new document. If any other swatches come through with it (seems to happen for me in CS3), delete them. Create an empty frame and fill it with your rogue swatch. Export this file as a pdf. Place the pdf in your original file. Delete it. Your chances of being able to select the rogue swatch and delete it should be greater now. But still no? Ay yi yi! I know how you feel.

Step 4
Create an empty Illustrator file. Create a new swatch that has the exact same name as the rogue swatch, but the swatch makeup doesn’t matter as long as it does have a color applied. Make sure that it is saved as a spot color if your rogue swatch is spot, and process if your rogue is process. Save this as a .ai file and as a .pdf. Open your original InDesign file, place both elements on your page and delete them one at a time. You should now be able to delete the rogue swatch.

I sincerely hope you can delete the swatch. If you can’t, please, please contact me. I’d love to take your file and see if I can figure it out. Seriously! Cause my super-power? Total geekery.

Lunchtime Links: The Happy Birthday Publicious Edition

Happy Birthday, Publicious!

One year ago today, I published my first Publicious post. Here we are 150 posts later! This has been incredibly fun, rewarding, and tiring. In honor of the occasion, all of today’s links are staying “in house.” Sort of a Greatest Hits thing. Without further ado, here are the 10 most popular Publicious posts to date, according to the WordPress stats.

10. Über-Master Pages in which Cinnamon shows she is the Buffy of page layout.

9. Adventures in FontStruction in which I re-create the 8-bit Atari glory of my youth, one pixel at a time.

8. House of a Different Color in which I apply a virtual coat of paint to my in-laws’ house, thereby avoiding the actual job. Gotta love digitizing your chores. Now if I could just apply the Scoop filter to the litterbox…

7. Try to Tri-Fold Correctly in which Cinnamon drops the knowledge of just how tricky it is to make a brochure really right. Almost as cool as being able to fold a t-shirt in 2 seconds. Oops, OK, I’ll let that one external link slide.

6. TLF, My New BFF in which I wax rhapsodic about the possibilities of Adobe’s text tech.

5. Streamlining InDesign Templates in which Cinnamon shows how to build an InDesign document right, from the ground up.

4.  Basically Adaptable Styles in which Cinnamon offers up a sequel to her templating hit.

3. The Road to Hell is Paved With Double Clicks in which I reveal to the world just how far I am willing to go down the rabbit hole in search of that last morsel of geek.

2. Is This What a Kindle Killer Looks Like? in which I think I’m smarter than a company that got 615 million visitors to its website last year.

1. CS5 Revealed! in which I play a Nostradorkus, foretelling of the future of publishing tech in a book that I found at my town recycling center one Saturday. It’s Back to the Future, with mullets and vectors.

Now that’s a spicy meatball. First, a huge thanks to Cinnamon, since four of those top ten posts are hers. If only I could sabotage her sewing machine… Second, there are no posts by Eric on that list, simply because his stuff hasn’t been around long enough to accumulate mad stats yet. However, IMNSHO, Eric’s “Bits and Pieces” series should be required reading for anyone who may have to deal with XML in publishing. Which is, like, everyone, right? So here you go.

The Bits and Pieces I: Making XML

The Bits and Pieces II: Content Model

The Bits and Pieces III: Building Blocks

The Bits and Pieces IV: The Vendors

And what’s a birthday without presents? Here’s a gift for everyone: I’ve found another massively talented person to agree to be a contributor. She’s an amazing digital artist who will bring a whole new area of expertise to Publicious. Who is this person? Stay tuned!

OK, I have to go blow out these candles before the wax drips inside my keyboard.