The future of content editors

Paul Boag

One of the best ways to improve your site is to improve the content editor in your content management system.

Nothing leads to passionate debate among web professionals like content management systems. We love to argue about which content management system is best.

In this post I want to focus on a different question — what level of control should we provide content creators? Should those who produce content in a CMS have the ability to style it and if they do to what degree?

The dangers of giving content creators design control

We have all seen what happens when you give content providers control over the appearance of the content they are adding — horrendous colour schemes, poor quality imagery and inconsistent typography.

This has led to suggestions that content management systems should be a tool of the professional. Others argue content providers should mark up the semantic meaning of copy and have no control over design.

It is unrealistic in most organisations to restrict access to the content management system. It is unreasonable to expect organisations to have teams of web professionals on hand to update website content. The reason these content management systems were implemented in the first place was to avoid a bottleneck for putting content online.

Neither do I believe it is wise to remove all design control from content providers.

The danger of removing all design control

At the moment it would appear the prevailing wisdom among web professionals is to restrict content providers to writing content and marking it up with semantic meaning. Design is left in the hands of the CSS.

The downside to this approach is it makes one page feel like another. There is little to differentiate them. Content all appears in a handful of generic templates.

A growing number of web designers are concerned about this trend. They feel the web lacks the art direction we see in other mediums. They want to see a close relationship between design and content.

The Verge is one example of a site that is endeavouring to progress beyond pouring content into template buckets.

The problem is to achieve this close relationship between design and content, there needs to be the tools to make it happen. It is unrealistic to expect every post on a site like the Verge to be handcrafted by a designer. This brings us to the content editor found in content management systems.

Content editors suck

Despite the fact content editors are the heart of a content management system, they get little in the way of attention.

Developers either drop in a WYSIWYG editor that attempts to replicate the functionality of Microsoft Word, or locks down the editor to the point where no styling is possible.

A new generation of content management systems are changing things by attempting to find middle ground. A way that allows a degree of art direction, without leading to the design disasters of the past.

The next generation of content editors

The first example I encountered was the Mailchimp email designer.

Mailchimp Email Designer
Mailchimp email designer allows drag and drop design control.

This application allows you to drag ‘modules’ into a blank canvas to build up the layout of your email. Modules include:

  • Text blocks (in various formats)
  • Images (in various formats)
  • Buttons
  • Social icons

These modules can be edited, moved and customised at will, allowing the user considerable control over the final appearance of the email.

Medium offers similar functionality, although without the same flexibility. This blogging platform allows the user to add images, breaks and embeds into their posts. The variety of formatting options they offer for imagery and text allows a considerable degree of art direction, while maintaining their overall design identity. While Mailchimp’s intention is to provide the maximum level of customisation possible, Medium seeks to ensure a considerable level of design consistency.

Squarespace allows considerable control over content layout and presentation.

Squarespace walks the middle ground between the other two options. The result is a sophisticated solution which other content management systems should emulate.

Squarespace chooses to restrict the degree to which you can customise typography and colour, but provides many layout options. For example, using their drag and drop tools you can create complex layouts and insert a range of different modules, from imagery to quotations or forms.

A good content editor is a necessity

When I compare the content editors found in most of the content management systems my clients use, it is apparent they are inferior to the new generation of tools we are seeing emerge.

I would like to tell you there is an easy solution for upgrading your content editor. If there is, I am unaware of it. What you can do is reach out to your content management system vendor and draw their attention to the problem.

Many organisations pay considerable amounts for their content management systems and they should expect a superior product to that available for a few dollars a month.

As for the open source CMS community – it is time for one of the large organisations who use open source platforms to pay a developer to build a superior content editor. An editor they can share with the rest of the community.