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The Document Triangle

The interdependence of the structure, information and presentation dimensions

Peter J. Bogaards - november 2003

Every paper and digital document shares three basic dimensions: structure, information and presentation. Although these dimensions are always interwoven, some people in the digital world mostly focus on document structures (e.g. information architects), some on the information they contain (e.g. marketers and writers/editors) while others specialize in the (interactive) presentation aspects (e.g. visual designers and Flash developers). The mutual dependence and interaction of these dimensions is the next level of design and does not regularly get the proper attention. In order to better understand the relationship between these dimensions, let us look at each of them seperately, and how they inter-relate.

Structure

Structure can operate as a noun and as a verb. As a noun, we say that something has a structure. A structure can be a composite of things ('nodes') and their relationships. As a verb, we give stucture to things. To structure is a human activity. We look for similarities and differences on multiple dimensions. Richard Saul Wurman coined the LATCH-acronym for creating a structure among things: location, alphabet, time, category, and hierarchy. This way of organizing things is creating a kind of structure.

There are two ways to express a structure: with our natural language and through our senses. Diagrams and graphs are a typical visual representation for human consumption; to express and formalize a document structure in a computational way, we can use schema technology.

Information

The word 'information' calls to mind the relationship between concepts like data, information, and knowledge. In the world of technology for human use, the term 'content' is used as the umbrella concept for everything not computational. Mostly, content is seen as unstructured texts and images.

Content is king. However, information cannot just exist within itself. Poems, novels, movies, music and paintings all are about something. De Saussure made the distinction between referrer (the term or the concept) and referred (the object in the outside world the term refers to). Each specific term says something about our external world.

Relevancy is an important attribute of information, determined by its context and the pre-existing knowledge of the information consumer. With relevancy, people are able to make information out of plain data. Adding context to a data set is the way information can be used by humans.

Presentation

Presentation, shape or form relates directly to the human perception and senses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it also expresses meaning.

Presentation is perhaps the most rich and well-developed dimension. Print technology is more than 500 years old since Gutenberg and the design of print artifacts is historically seen an application of presentation. The integration of typeface, color, and images in areas like posters, magazines and books came to full development in the 20th century. The variety, richness and possibilities of this technology has been overwhelming. And besides this wealth of possibilities, it has definitely changes our cultures, economies, and sciences.

Presentation is directly related to our senses, cognition and thinking. It conveys information in a written, visual, or aural form and presents it in a specific format. Each format has developed over time into a language with its own grammar and vocabulary. A language which has to be learned and understood in order to read and write the information presented.

Relation of structure and information

Besides the three discrete document dimensions, they are also related. When data is enriched so it becomes information, it must have a kind of structure. Without structure, information is not possible. However, the structure of information is not always immediately apparent. When information is perceived and a structure cannot be identified immediately, that does not mean there is no structure.

Conventional technology fields focus on the structures of data. Database applications which deal with identifying the structures of data sets is called 'data modelling'. How data is created, distributed, and maintained in enterprise information systems is called 'information management'. Both are related to the data structure for computational consumption. The difference is that humans are not computers as we know them. Identifying structures for human consumption might deliver a different kind of structure and information. A structure which adds meaning. As Tim Berners Lee said, "Data is for machines, documents are for humans."

Within the artificial intelligence world, the concept of knowledge structures occurs. These are computational structures representing human knowledge which can be manipulated. This concept of knowledge structures is extensively discussed by Roger Schank and Robert Abelson in 'Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures'.

In the Web design world where the page is the unit of entity, a distinction is often made between dynamic and static pages. Dynamic pages mostly refer to the use of highly structured (database) data which can be manipulated electronically and be displayed as pages. However, the structure of higher aggregates like full-sized hypermedia documents, document sets or digital libraries is often neglected. The information structures of these entities are harder to express, store and manipulate. Poems, symphonies, novels, or movies often represent more abstract, complex and harder to express structures.

Relation of structure and presentation

Presentation sets the show to the structure of information. The structure is the underlying pattern represented in the presentation. We might even call it 'information representation'. An information representation reveals the structure by its attributes. For example, with typographical attributes like font size or line spacing the hierchical structure of an information set can be conveyed or disclosed.

The presentation of information is a structure enriched with attributes aimed at the human senses in mind. It is geared towards using the representation for understanding purposes. A specific presentation relates to design and not immediately to art. During the design process, the focus is on the use of the structure and its presentation by people. Within a specific context, a selection of presentation attributes can be brand and/or convention related.

New formats for digital multimedia and rich internet applications will provide challenging ways to think about the presentation and structure relation. Interesting questions arise. What types of structures emerge if we use other media types than just text and still imagery? What will the impact be for the relation of structure and presentation in streaming video, interactive animations, and special sound effects? It will be more challenging when these new formats are created integrated with computation and connectivity.

Relation of information and presentation

One can discuss if presentation is possible without information. Even the lorem ipsum text as a placeholder for presentation exercises is a specific kind of information. One needs information to identify its presentation. We can only experience information when it is (re)presented in a specific way. Information cannot be presented without a shape recognizable by humans.

From a technology perspective, the form factor of information is determined by the presentation technologies at hand. These technologies are still very immature for digital information. Analogue print, sound and movies as a set of presentation technologies is much more advanced, mature and stable. However, the digital presentation technologies are growing and expanding at a rapid pace. Digital presentation technologies will play a crucial role in future human knowledge development and communication.

Relations of structure, information, and presentation

It appears to be impossible to conceptually and logically separate the three document dimensions. As far as we can get is to distinguish them. In some cases, they are completely interwoven. In other cases, they can be physically and technically seperated. In monolithical documents like a Word document we cannot seperate and manipulate them. These documents are for human and print consumption only.

Change implications

The three document dimensions are so interwoven that changes in one dimension immediately impact on the others. What happens to presentation if the structure of information is changed? That depends of the type of changes. What happens to the information when the structure is changed? In structural changes, the identified objects and their relations change. Presentation changes apply to the sensorial attributes or media types used. Change in the information dimension changes as far as the domain it refers to is concerned.

Dynamics and adaptation

Electronic structures, information and presentation exhibit a dynamic and adaptive behaviour. Their behaviour is based upon computation. Dynamic behaviour defined as the amount and types of changes within a certain time frame. Adaptative behaviour as alterations related to their use in terms of interaction, people and contextual circumstances.

Implications

If we see the hypertextual Web from a document-centric point-of-view, we have to think multidimensional. Being able to identify and explicitly design structures, informaton and presentation will allow us better to think in terms of mutual dependencies and implications and therefore make better and more coherent design decisions.

Without the valuable editorial feedback of Dirk Knemeyer, this article would not have been possible.

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