XML for Creative Content and Page Layout Applications

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CIDM

August 2006


XML for Creative Content and Page Layout Applications


CIDMIconNewsletter Eric Severson, Flatirons Solutions

While technical documentation has traditionally been the domain for structured authoring, there is increasing interest in using XML for more “creative” materials such as sales brochures and marketing collateral. Such pre-sales materials often have even more compelling opportunities for single-sourcing and reuse than technical documents. For example, the same product description may be included in a glossy data sheet, a product catalog, product technical specifications, and across multiple pages on the web site. Photos, logos, disclaimers, and other common information may be used across materials for a great variety of products. Up to now, these materials have been produced one at a time in page-oriented publishing systems like Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress. While this provides maximum flexibility in controlling exact page layouts, it can create a nightmare when small changes must be replicated across all the independent pages and documents.

Why Should We Use XML?

In fact, the business case for single-sourcing is not only just as applicable to sales and marketing documentation—it is actually even more compelling. This is true because the interrelationships among print and web marketing collateral are more complex, and discrepancies are directly “in the face” of customers. Furthermore, because marketing documents tend to be hand-crafted by graphic artists, significantly more labor—and cost —is involved in making changes. Customer satisfaction suffers when documents are out of sync.

In the world of technical publishing, much effort has gone into the concept of driving individual documents out of a “singlesource” of shared content. There is often a great degree of overlap across different document types, and the information is usually authored and maintained independently.

Severson - Figure 1

Every time an engineering change occurs, updates must be painstakingly “rippled through” all the various documents that contain the information—including both printed output and web pages.

Most people associate single-sourcing and XML publishing only with technical documents. But every time an engineering change occurs, it must be rippled through not only the classic technical documents but also across every corresponding data sheet, product brief, brochure, and product catalog description. Furthermore, these updates must extend to a wealth of individual web pages that describe the product and its specifications. And marketing documents don’t just share overlapping descriptions: they also have the need to synchronize changes in logos, branding, product photos, benefits statements, and pricing.

Where Should We Use XML?

But can XML-based techniques really be applied to sales and marketing material? Isn’t it too creative and graphically complex?

In fact, it can—but to see this application we have to challenge the current way we’ve been thinking about the problem.

First, we tend to think of all marketing documents in the same category, all needing the same kind of complex page layout and handcrafted graphical design. However, a more careful look shows this is not true. In fact, there is a continuum of complexity, ranging from data sheets and product briefs all the way to highly sophisticated magazine ads.

As a framework for this analysis, we can create a formal five-level classification scheme, representing increasing levels of page layout and publishing complexity, correlated with increasingly complex marketing content types. These levels are defined as follows:

  • Level 1: Whitepapers, Case Studies, and Press Releases
  • Level 2: Newsletters, Data Sheets, and Product Briefs
  • Level 3: Product Brochures, Solution Guides, and Catalogs
  • Level 4: Cover Art, Ads, and Inserts
  • Level 5: Sophisticated Magazine Ads

From the viewpoint of single sourcing, most of the interest is actually at the lower levels of complexity. Single sourcing is most effective (and most needed) under the following conditions:

  • when there are a large number of interrelated documents
  • when there are many redundant variations on the same content
  • when there are many parameters or phrases that need to be updated when engineering changes occur
  • when the frequency of such changes is high
Level Content
Types
Volume of
Content
Level of
Redundancy
Items to be
Updated
Frequency of
Updates
Level 1
Whitepapers, Case Studies, and Press Releases
Medium
Medium
Low
Low
Level 2

Newsletters, Data Sheets, and Product Briefs

High
High
High
High
Level 3
Product Brochures, Solution Guides, and Catalogs
Medium
High
High
Medium
Level 4
Cover Art, Ads, and Inserts
Low
Low
Low
Low
Level 5
Sophisticated Magazine Ads
Low
Low
Low
Low

Table 1. Levels 2 and 3 are the “Sweet Spot” for Single Sourcing

As illustrated in Table 1, these characteristics occur primarily at levels 2 and 3 of our model. Levels 4 and 5—the most complex and handcrafted of the content—might be difficult to single source but needn’t be. Material at Level 4 and 5—cover art, ads, inserts, and other specialty pieces—should continue to be produced in Adobe or Quark.

Traditionally, the same page layout tools used for magazine ads have been used to create and maintain each individual data sheet and product brief—even when these number in the hundreds or thousands. With the introduction of XSL-FO and SVG, however, we can replace these cumbersome update processes with an XML-based approach.

XSL-FO is designed for page formatting, including flowing text, images, and text boxes placed within page margins, columns, and flow areas. However, it extends traditional page formatting to include arbitrary placement of text and graphics objects, layering and overlapping objects, and flows between text blocks. SVG is designed for vector graphics, including lines, curves, images and “fancy” text effects. Used together, XSL-FO and SVG can provide XML-based single sourcing to most data sheets, product briefs, brochures, and catalogs.

Level Content Types Key
Requirements
XML Support
Level 1
Whitepapers, Case Studies, and Press Releases
  • Standard multi-column layout
  • Simple text flow across columns and pages
  • Some objects that span columns
  • “Floating” images
  • Simple colors
Current XSL-FO Tools
Level 2

Newsletters, Data Sheets, and Product Briefs

  • Objects laid out on a grid
  • No text flows between cells
  • Background shading / graphics
  • Sidebar headings, paragraphs, and graphics
  • Arbitrary RGB colors
Current XSL-FO Tools
Level 3
Product Brochures, Solution Guides, and Catalogs
  • Arbitrary placement of text and graphics
  • Some flows between cells
Full XSL-FO
Level 4
Cover Art, Ads, and Inserts
  • Layering of text and graphics
  • Complex text effects
  • Rectangular clipping paths
  • CMYK color support
Full XSL-FO / SVG
Level 5
Sophisticated Magazine Ads
  • Arbitrary placement and layering of text and graphics
  • Precise kerning and tracking
  • Text set on arbitrary paths
  • Complex clipping paths
SVG

Table 2. Levels 1-3 can be supported by XSL-FO

As summarized in Table 2, each of the levels of our model can be associated with a specific set of requirements. Levels 1 and 2 of our model can be supported with current XSL-FO tools, and level 3 is well within the range of XSL-FO itself.

How Should We Use XML?

How do we actually use XML to produce marketing material? First, we can borrow several powerful ideas from the world of web page design: using tables to lay out objects on a grid and placing text on top of an underlying background graphic. These design basics are not really a leap of faith—after all, web pages represent highly graphical, creative content that has had to overcome similar limitations in free-flowing HTML.

Second, we can use SVG as the background graphic format. SVG allows us to express any graphic format that we can create in Quark or InDesign, including text that has to be skewed, or arbitrarily rotated or set on a Bezier curve, or a graphic that also has to be skewed and layered. More importantly, if SVG is expressed in XML, it can be dynamically part of the publishing process. The background graphic can be personalized with text and graphics from the source XML file. Then the whole page can be “overprinted” with the rest of the text and graphics from the XML file.

The result is a multi-layered, creative look-and-feel that rivals what can be done directly in Quark or InDesign. But, because it is done in XML, it takes advantage of single-sourcing and dynamic publishing of the same data to multiple formats and delivery channels.

This approach leverages the fact that high-volume creative materials follow standard page layout templates. For example, all double-sided product briefs will typically have a standard template for the front page and a different standard template for the back page. Therefore, all double-sided product briefs can leverage the same SVG background templates, and all will be composed usingthe same set
of XSLT transforms.

Conclusion

Sales and marketing documents are the next frontier for XML-based single
sourcing. There is a compelling business case, and the technology is available to
do it.

In creative marketing materials, especially data sheets, product briefs, brochures, and catalogs, small changes occur all the time. In the absence of single sourcing, even a small change requires researching all impacted documents and individually updating each one. This process can be very time-consuming and expensive, especially when updates can only be made by skilled graphic designers or outside design firms.

Up to now, we have assumed that XML-based single-sourcing techniques can’t be applied to creative marketing materials because page layouts and artwork are too sophisticated. Although some marketing documents have extremely complex formats, most use a simple column/grid design. With the right approaches, today’s XML tools can already handle a large class of these documents. Enhanced XSL-FO and SVG support will soon enable us to handle many of the rest.

Certainly, it doesn’t make sense to use XML for highly creative, one-off specialty pieces like cover art, magazine ads, and product inserts (levels 4 and 5 in our model). However, we have shown how today’s XML tools can in fact be used to maintain highly graphical and highly volatile sales collateral, web pages, and product catalogs (levels 2 and 3 in our model)—all from a single source of XML information.

With this exciting new capability, we can

  • significantly reduce the cost and complexity of maintaining marketing materials
  • simultaneously increase the consistency and accuracy of this information
  • dramatically decrease the cycle time to make updates
  • increase the overall level of control over this process
  • gain a competitive edge by leveraging the latest technology in areas where others haven’t

About the Author

Eric Severson b&wh

Eric Severson
Chief Technology Officer
Flatirons Solutions
eric.severson@flatironssolutions.com

A recognized XML pioneer and content management industry expert, Eric Severson is a past President of OASIS (XML industry consortium), co-chair of the CALS Table Interoperability Technical Committee, a principal designer of the IBM XML Certification Program, and developer of Avalanche’s “FastTAG” intelligent XML markup engine. With over 20 years of industry experience, Eric has held senior management positions in both engineering and marketing roles, worked in Big 5 and IBM consulting practices, and is the founder of a successful XML start-up company. As a founder and CTO of Flatirons Solutions, Eric leads an experienced consulting and systems integration practice specializing in XML-based publishing, content management, and collaboration/BPM

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