Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

The way you design web content is about to change.



We’re Done With Dumb Content

For the entire history of the web so far, we’ve generally handled content in two ways.

  1. Basic, one-size-fits-all pages, or
  2. Complex, custom pages

We thought this made website planning easier. As it turns out, it’s just made it dumber. The conceit of this approach is that for any content or content arrangement that can’t be done using a basic content area and its friendly WYSIWYG editor, we can create a custom template with its own set of fields and logic. In the old days, when most content was quite at home in a single column of text with the occasional image here and there, the idea that special content could have its own definition in the CMS and its own, unique template seemed quite sophisticated. We were crafting this content just so. Had we known better, we would have called it “artisanal.” Maybe then it wouldn’t be so obviously outmoded today.

modular_1.png

Of course, it would still be dumb.

No single name — no matter how trendy — would change the fact that, over the years, we’ve accumulated a long list of distinct types of content. Each one comes with its own conventions, both in terms of the specific information it contains as well as the manner in which it’s presented. A blog post, for example, may have many of the same informational attributes as an article, a whitepaper, or a case study — a title, author, publication date, abstract, text, images, comments, etc. — but it usually has a visual format of its own. In fact, it is often the visual attributes that most clearly differentiate one type of content from another.

That the list of content types has grown is not a problem, really. Each one meets a unique need and wouldn’t exist if differentiation wasn’t useful. The problem exists with the formats. The basic, one-size-fits-all page isn’t really suitable for any of the types of content we care about. So we’ve created a unique template for each one. There is the problem: template bloat. The more templates that exist, the more rules we have to follow when we create content, the more logic we have to keep track of within the CMS, and the more production work we have to do to create and maintain them. After all, with so many specific layout decisions being made before much content is created, the likelihood that we'd later feel restricted by our custom templates and want to change them is very high. Template bloat is inefficient, expensive, and most importantly, frustrating.

There is a solution. Six months ago, it existed as a sketch in my notebook. Now, it’s a core part of our CMS. Many of our clients are already using it and loving it. I want to show you how it works. I suspect that if you're not already, you’ll never think about content the same way again.

First, I need to dig deeper into a few things — like templates and design and expectations — which is going to take some time. If you're in a hurry and need to cut to the chase, go ahead and skip down to the heading "We Need Modular Content." But promise me you'll come back and read the whole thing, OK?

 

Content Management or Page Management?

Content management and page management are two completely different things. Unfortunately, most of the time when we're using a CMS, we're entering content into page-specific field sets. We're giving the page what it wants.

I'd been thinking about this more lately, after having used our new system — the one I'm going to show you later in this article — because I now had an experience to compare with what I've been used to for years. Having been far too close to CMS development for years, it suddenly became clear to me how real that user frustration I've always heard about truly is. In fact, just the other day, Mark Boulton put it quite well:


Mark is absolutely right.

How we think about the architecture of content management systems inevitably trickles down and influences how we think about the formatting of content. The CMS tends toward analytical organization of content — types with differentiated fields, structure, and logic — but we think in terms of narratives. Simple, human, story-based content structures based upon a flow from need to experience to outcome. This is an obvious mis-match. When we plan the information architecture of a website — itself a highly analytical process — we anticipate what the CMS can do and we align our planning to those capabilities. That's where our type-orientation comes from. It's the technology reaching back into the planning and creative processes, when it should be waiting to respond to what those processes produce.

Here's a pretty simple example of that: I use WordPress for my personal site. It’s a breeze to set up. I had the entire structure created and configured just how I wanted it in a matter of minutes. But while creating the structure of a site like mine is relatively simple — which seems like a good thing — I’m quite limited in terms of what I can do with the content my site will contain. It was the easiest box in the world to build, but as it turns out, it’s a pretty small box. That's great for WordPress developers. It keeps the variables low and the stability high. And ultimately, it's OK for me, too. I don't have much need for more than the one-size-fits-all content type. But it doesn’t even come close to what my clients need. They need much more than a simple box. My guess is you do, too.

By the way, this is why your house looks different from my house.

Uh oh. I'm about to make a websites are like houses analogy. What the heck. I’m going to do it.

Imagine you're designing a new house.

Now imagine that — after the bedrooms, bathrooms, living room, kitchen, and dining room — you only had one spare room in this house. You might use it as a guest room, a home office, a nursery, storage, or something else. It's up to you. Now having that spare room sounds pretty good, right? But what if you only had one chance to choose and arrange the furniture for this room? I don't know about you, but I'd probably hold off on buying any furniture and arranging this room until I had a better idea about what I was going to use it for.

This is the dumb, one-size-fits-all approach to content. When we don't know what to plan for, we make our baseline the simplest thing. That seems reasonable enough, but when we don't make specific design decisions for the space in question, it can become anything. Most designers are not happy with that.

OK. Back to your imaginary house.

This time, imagine you can have as many rooms in your house as you want. You can have your guest room. And your home office. And your nursery, your music room, your dojo, your room for dreaming up new rooms. You can have all the rooms. This also sounds pretty great. Except that you'll quickly end up with a very large, strange, and nearly impossible to maintain house.

This crazyhouse is the template-bloat approach to web design. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but the trouble is that large, sprawling, and strange content houses don't seem so absurd in website planning meetings. On the contrary, they seem like the right thing to do. They even look very professional, what with all their neatly arranged boxes and arrows.

I took inventory of all the prototypes we've built over the last year, and I found that the typical template count was somewhere between 15-20. That is not including generative screens like thank-you pages, alerts, or steps in an e-commerce funnel — the sorts of pages that can be covered by a good style guide. These are unique templates that anticipate unique forms of content and arrange that content in all sorts of combinations. Each one of these would need a unique layout, so we're talking about 15-20 composition files that a designer would have to produce and take through approval. (That is also not including the alternate versions of these templates designed for mobile devices.) Having seen personally how the production process has become longer, more expensive, and more stressful in recent years, I'd say that 15-20 templates is way too many.

We need to trim the fat. Something called modular content is going to help us do that. More on that in a bit...

modular_2a.png

So, to review, reasons why designing unique templates for every type of content we create is wasteful and needs to stop include:

  1. Content creators are forced to think about layout too early. Thinking about how content will look is generally less productive until you are already clear on what the content is, why it's needed, who it is for, and a variety of other practical considerations having to do with who creates it and how often it's produced.
  2. Designers' workload increases significantly. In addition to having to create many unique templates, each one requires a review and approval process that makes following a narrowing funnel of design decision making much more complicated.
  3. Content management is too difficult. Content management systems tend toward analytical organization of content by type, which means that as the types grow in number, the methods of connecting them become more complicated and labor-intensive (e.g. Create a new page, save; create a slideshow, save; create an image, save; associate the image with the slideshow, save; associate the slideshow to the page; save. etc.).
  4. Maintenance is too expensive over the long-term. The chances that you would want to change the layout — or even a small detail within a particular layout — after you've become accustomed to creating content is beyond high. It's practically a guarantee. But with 15-20 different templates, the cost of the developer's work to implement that change could be way out of scale with what you expect to pay.

 

But what about ______ ?

I know. There are many examples you want to show me right now that are completely blowing your mind but that you know can’t possibly be the result of the dumb or dumber way of content management. They're not built on a one-size-fits-all content bucket, nor are they some sort of complicated content type aggregator. They're... something else. Something new. Something that almost seems the result of some kind of web magic.

Well, you’re right, there is a third way. It's not dumb. It's custom — very custom — and I need to take a moment to get into a bit more detail in order to explain just what I mean by "custom" in this case. It's necessary because, unfortunately, this third way is the form of content that is framing this entire conversation. It’s stuff like this, from Globalpost, this, from Pitchfork, and the Grandfather of them all, this, from the New York Times. That last one — the New York Times Snow Fall piece — made such a splash that creating media like it is now referred to as "snowfalling."

These pages marry the beauty, detail, and diversity we’re used to from print to the responsiveness and interactivity we’re used to on the web. Many of them are simply works of art. But darn it, they are thorns in a designer’s side. Why?

no_cms.png

Reasons that snowfalling is setting a bad example for web design:

  1. It is distracting. Content like the New York Times and Pitchfork pieces represent an imbalance of design for attention — it's design for spectacle. How many people who viewed the Snow Fall page actually read all the Snow Fall content? I wonder. It is clear that there is an important delineation between the two. I have my doubts that 3.5 million people actually read the thing. Now, would either story have been satisfying and effective without the glitzy HTML5 effects? Yes. That means they didn't really need them.
  2. It is expensive. Snow Fall reportedly took 6 months and a team of 16 people to make. Was this a worthy investment? Plenty say no. But that's not the point. The New York Times can do what it wants. The point is this: Who among us has such a wealth of resources? Who among us can wait that long to produce content? Right.
  3. It is custom. Custom with a capital "C," people. Custom, as in, not CMS-able! These pages are the result of a team of writers, designers, and programmers sitting very close to one another for a long time and making something spectacular. Whether it’s a single page, or a series of pages, is irrelevant. These are unique media; the structure and the content are inseparable. Even if you were to copy one of these pages to reuse for another piece of content, the relationship between text and image, how and where interactive elements are placed, and the overall layout in general would probably be entirely redesigned for the purposes of whatever piece of content is being produced next. In other words, these are not templates. They are the antithesis of a template.

Incidentally, I asked Jon Lax of Teehan+Lax — who produce beautiful case stories in similar (but entirely appropriate as far as the degree to which their design contributes to the reading experience is concerned) fashion to the news and media pieces I’ve referenced — what it takes to produce them. Jon Lax replied:


I don't know what your hourly rate is, but let's just say that good content — the stuff of Teehan+Lax's ilk — is expensive. You must make your own assessment of how much time and/or resources you're willing to put toward your content. If Snow Fall inspires you, great. If Teehan+Lax inspire you, even better. But know this: You will never produce content of that caliber without making a commensurate investment.

And you will not find a CMS that just "does" that sort of magic, either.

 

Making Peace with the CMS

Their analytical faults aside, content management systems use templates for a good reason. They do this so you can have a simple tool to "add this" or "add that," which is built upon your having already determined what "this" and "that" are, which, in turn, makes adding "this" and "that" a lot like filling out a form. It's supposed to be like that so that you can do it over and over again and know what to expect. CMS tools are like mad libs. They’re set up so that content entry is simply a process of filling in the blanks. Title here. Abstract here. Content here. Images here. Video here. And when you fill in those blanks, the CMS puts that stuff where you expected it would be. When you add a video, it will be either on the left or right of the page and text will wrap around it because that's what you told the system to do. When you add an image, it will either display “full bleed” across the content column, or align left or right because that's what you told the system to do. These rules and expectations are what make a template a template, and templates are — for better or for worse — the currency of the CMS. They are what make content production possible for people who either don’t know how or don't have the time to design things in Photoshop and then build them with code. If you can’t commit to rules, fine. But then you are looking for something custom — something that will not scale without writers, designers, and developers to make that happen.

(This isn't Nam, Donnie. There are rules!)

Unfortunately, I haven't met many designers that understand all of these things — the fundamental restrictions of the template and the custom nature of Snow Fall — and aren't still frustrated by having to conform their creativity to content management systems. I can't tell you how often I have to deconstruct creative expectations set by media like Snow Fall. I get the frustration. But just because you want something you can see right before your very eyes doesn't entitle you to ignore all the practical aspects of how that thing works or was created in the first place. Designers, it is our responsibility to give deep thought to how content will be created, how it will be managed by way of whatever CMS has been chosen, and how it will be sustained over the long-term.

It is simply irresponsible to design a website without giving serious thought to content management.

This is why so many designers and developers feel that snowfalling isn't such a good thing after all. It sets expectations so high that reality can rarely be anything other than a creative downer.

At this point, a few of you might be thinking, "But what about Medium?" Content produced on Medium is beautiful. Medium lets you compose stunning pages similar to Snow Fall with about as much ease as I could ever imagine. How do they do it? Doesn't the existence of Medium show that everything I've said so far is bogus? In short, no. Here's why:

Here is a page I created on Medium in about five minutes. You’re going to need to sign in/up to view it, so if that’s too inconvenient, here’s a screenshot:

medium_1.png

Looks great, right? And it's kind of fancy, like my own little Snow Fall, right? No, not really.

  1. Medium is a content management system with one template. You can add text and images in various — albeit darn fancy combinations to one page. That's it. Medium does not produce content like Snow Fall because (a) it is a content management system — recall that Snow Fall is a custom piece of media with no CMS behind it — and (b) it is specifically a blogging platform that keeps its content close. If you put it on Medium, it stays there.
  2. Medium's template only makes sense for Medium. If you were to copy Medium's template, you would have a page with no header, no navigation, and no calls to action. Designing a beautiful page is a whole lot easier to do when you don't have to think about how that page fits into a larger, more complex information architecture.
  3. Most importantly, Medium is not your website. It's Medium's. Anything you put there belongs to them. Medium is a CMS like Blogger was a CMS. It's a system for creating and adding content to a platform that hordes your content.

So we can all stop drooling now.

Don't get me wrong. Medium is very cool. The user interface is about as minimal and intuitive as I could imagine page-editing to be. Medium excels because it’s simplified what many users want out of the content creation experience. They've made it stable, streamlined, elegant, and standardized. It’s a CMS with one nifty content template. But comparing it to a CMS used for business purposes is obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison.

So to wrap up, content management systems work with templates. They can have one template or many. If you can't do what you want with the templates — if they're holding you back creatively or technically — then you either have to standardize that thing and create a new template for it or go rogue and leave the CMS to create something custom at a greater cost in time and money.

No wonder designers hate content management systems.

If we are going to make any progress with content for the web, we are not going to do it by creating a new template or even a new type of content. We are going to do it by changing how content management systems work.

That's where — finally — modular content comes in.

 

We Need Modular Content

Creating content today requires an incredible amount of planning, work, and flexibility. At the forefront, we need to spend a lot of time thinking through strategic considerations in order to make a plan that suits our audience and goals. The work to produce the content we've planned for is considerable. Every word and image take time to craft. But, as necessary as it is today, flexibility — to change what we say, how we say it, and to whom — is often the thing that puts enormous pressure on the work. This is especially the case when there are technological barriers to being flexible — like that the template won't let you do that thing you want to do because when you designed that template you didn't know you'd ever want to do that thing.

We need a way of handling content that takes some of that pressure off — that doesn't expect us to have planned for every possible thing we might want to do and manifest those million details in a complex and feature-bloated template. We need something that enables us to be creative at the right times and not have to resort to custom solutions outside of the CMS. Lots of people are working on solving just this (we're not the only ones), but we've got a long way to go.

We need our CMS to provide content creation tools that:

  1. Prioritize content without deprecating design. But unlike some of the snowfalling we've seen, we need something that helps us maintain a balance of design for attention. What you’re communicating is too important to be undermined by flash. You need a tool focused on supporting your thought leadership.
  2. Offer a real return on your investment. That means they make creating and managing content easy and enjoyable enough that you’ll actually do it as regularly as you planned to. And that it will get easier over time.
  3. Reduce template bloat, scale well, and provide stability.

We need modular content.

Remember that sketch I mentioned earlier? Well, after reflecting upon all of this — the struggles we have with designing web content, the pressure we feel from outside influences, and the stress of trying to keep up with them while not going broke designing millions of new templates and banging our heads against the limitations of the CMS — I drew a picture of what I thought the ideal "template" might look like for our platform. I slept on it. The next day, I thought a bit more about how a "template" like that might work within a content management system. I thought about what it might do well, and what limitations it might have. I put all this up on a whiteboard.

sketch_1.png

Then I talked to Dave. He liked the idea. He even thought of ways to get rid of some of the limitations I thought might be necessary. (So note, the limitations I listed on the whiteboard do not apply. That's why you always talk to Dave!) I suggested that we start working on a proof of concept and regroup in the next few weeks. Dave agreed. A few days later, he surprised me with a fully functional proof of concept. It was useful and stable enough that within a week or two, we were already using it on some existing client projects. Meanwhile, I worked with Lauren to get a standard prototype built that we could use to demo this thing to the rest of our clients.

Our little team of three had taken our CMS to the next level — and completely changed our approach to content planning — in less than a month. Amazing. Now that it's part of our toolset, every single one of us is contributing to improving it.

So here's what it is and how it works. As it turns out, it's not a new "template" after all. Its a new way of building content.

 

How Modular Content Works

Rather than one open content area — in which you could put text and images using a WYSIWYG — or a template that has pre-determined text and media "buckets," modular content allows you to add any content — text or media — in blocks. It supports building pages ad-hoc, adding text and media as you need it in a variety of combinations. After you've stacked a bunch of these content blocks, you can re-sort them any way you like. It's basically content Legos.

modular_3.png

To be clear: the example above isn't showing every possible combination of text and media in a block. You have full control over these combinations. You can create blocks simply containing full-width text, or text in two-columns, or text and images (in all kinds of orientations), video, text and video, slideshows, or slideshows and text.

Some more examples would probably help to get the picture.

thre_ex.png

Each of these pages — whether as simple as a text article or as complicated as a landing page chock full of text and media — could be assembled in just minutes using modular content blocks in the CMS. This means that modular content can be used to create any or all of the following "types" of content we typically create using individual, unique templates:

  1. blog posts
  2. long-form articles
  3. case studies
  4. landing pages
  5. employee bios
  6. etc.

Sounds simple enough, right? Of course, most content management systems sound like they're simple to use until you actually get in there and try to use them. In this case, I think what we've put together is about as simple as it could be. Here's a peek at how it works:

cms_steps.png

 

Moving Forward

I think modular content is a pretty exciting step forward for the web, web design, and content management. It can change so much of what we do, which is a great thing! With modular content, you don't have to commit to where images or text or any other media will appear on a page until you are creating that page! You don't have to worry about catering your content to a structure that already exists. You can just create.

While this introduces major efficiencies into the information architecture planning process — with modular content taking the place of many individual templates that would otherwise have been designed — there will still be plenty of content that will need unique templates. For example:

  1. You'll still design unique templates for home pages
  2. You'll still create style guides for list and grid arrangements that support all the pages that aggregate other content, like blogs, articles, videos, products, etc.
  3. You'll still design templates for content that has much more complex attributes and extensive information architecture needs — things like product pages that might include tabbed interfaces to layer information, reviews, order forms, and logic that pulls in other product information based upon user behavior or product metadata.

But for all the content we create that is Taco-Belling text and media, modular content is a perfect fit. You can take all the time you'll save by not having to worry about unique, complex templates for that content and put it toward careful and thoughtful design elsewhere.

This won’t be the last time we rethink content for the web. It certainly isn’t the first. And really, it’s not an invention so much as it is a way to finally make possible what most content creators have already invented in their minds and were bitterly disappointed to find out that their CMS couldn't do. Let's all work on this problem.

*Note (01/13/2014): After seeing a few comments on Twitter, I wanted to bring greater emphasis to the fact that this article is not about claiming to have invented modular content. Modular content exists in the minds of every content creator out there. The problem is that it doesn't fit through the doorway of most content management systems that those creators are using. This article is about that, and our particular solution to the problem. As the comments string clearly shows, we're not the only ones working to find a way to make modular content a CMS reality. We are less interested in claiming ownership over ideas than we are in serving our clients well. This is just one way we're trying to do that.

* Note (01/15/2014) A lot of people have been commenting/asking how they can implement this type of content approach on their own, non-Newfangled site. While the example we show is unique to our (non-licensable) CMS, there are several plugins available for WordPress and Drupal that, when installed and configued, provide similar functionality.

Perhaps the most feature-rich out-of-box option, is the Divi WordPress theme. If you’re a developer, and want more control over the block types and templates, take a look at the “Flexible Content Field” option, an add-on to the Advanced Custom Theme plugin. Both of these are paid solutions, but the cost is negligible compared to the benefit they provide. For Drupal, you can check out the Layout project. It’s a bit more “rough” than the two WordPress plugins I mentioned, but offers a greater level of granularity.

Comments

Christian Blomberg | August 5, 2014 10:19 AM
Great post Christopher. This is basically what we're doing at Contentful.com
You create your content type through adding building blocks and can then publish the content via our API to any sort of web or app template.
RA | June 24, 2014 4:40 AM
I'm surprised that nobody have mentioned www.readymag.com
Dorothy | June 18, 2014 9:24 AM
Good article. I recently used a similar system to allow a client to add reference notes after every paragraph or so , which we wanted to display in a hidden div on the website. The site is built on Expression Engine, so we used their grid system where one grid has the content and another is the reference block. The client can add as many blocks as they want. Some sections have more than 2 blocks, but the last one is always for reference notes. It works well.
Zach | June 3, 2014 12:28 PM
Has anybody ever looked at djangocms? https://www.django-cms.org/en/ I really like the concept of their CMS. Seems very nice for a modular content system. Just have the learning curve of python, django and its dependencies. Just thought I'd share.
jahy | February 14, 2014 4:49 AM
Christopher, please, look at this editor from Russia: http://dpl.lookatmedia.ru/editor/en#interface
WYSIWYG + Grids, embeds, images control.
It's a real life proof of concept.
Nick | February 12, 2014 5:00 PM
Awesome article Christopher! The need for a new type of CMS that satisfies both the needs of the design and that of the content has us looking into any new CMS we can find. We are also looking into Craft CMS but have usability issues for our clients, just not sold yet. If anyone has the down low on a new CMS would really appreciate the tip.
Awesome stuff again.
Drew | February 11, 2014 3:32 PM
Your ideas about modular content are interesting. And the first half of your article here is probably the best thing I've read all week. ...However, as a person responsible for a LARGE website with thousands of "pages," I want CLEAN content. if I have to export my content to another cms, it needs to come out as simple and straightfoward html content. Headings, paragraphs, text, and links.

I'd argue that the currency of a "good" cms is clean content, not a template.

Not to say that your ideas haven't made me think. This is a great piece of thought.
Ben Parizek | February 4, 2014 7:26 PM
Craft CMS has solved this problem for us. Singles, Channels, Entry Types, and the Matrix field are just the a few of the flexible features you get out of the box that make advanced content layouts easy to update for clients and easy to have lots of control over for designers.
julie | February 4, 2014 5:04 PM
Isn't this the basis of Squarespace?
Peer Fischer | January 25, 2014 6:28 AM
Nearly every CMS provides modular flexibility, even dirty wordpress with the right content composer plugin.
jamie schmid | January 20, 2014 6:46 PM
I think this is great. I'm a WordPress developer and have slowly been coming to the horrifying realisation that attaching content to a particular content type, rather than the other way around, is actually LIMITING us unnecessarily. It's such a strange and foreign way to think about content, because typically the Admin user thinks about content from the front-end perspective, attached to little pages and sidebars. Now everytime I build one of my "template-bloat" sites I sort of die a little thinking about how limited my user is to what kind of content they can ad. The need for control and "not letting the user break the site when they paste in their Word document" has gotten out of control, it's true. We've let it go to our heads and we're drunk on the power of all this CONTROL. But the fact is that the user or their organization can't be expected to know the format every bit of information they want to communicate is going to take.

I was happy to see you mention Advanced Custom Fields for WordPress, because it's exactly what I was thinking as I read this article. There is a cheap add-on called Flexible Content fields that I recommend any WordPress developers check out - it does exactly as you describe, allows the user to select their specific modular block and plop it onto the page. You as the developer are still given freedom to define content types on the field level and and it is a heck of a lot more front and back-end coding to be sure to account for different combinations but it can free up our users to ACTUALLY work in the "content-first" approach that we as developers crave - yet we seem to forget that once the project is "done" and passed onto our Admins, THEY are now the ones who are stuck to fitting their content into whatever pre-determined bucket youve build for it.

We keep thinking "this is going to be the end of professional web development!" after every new tool that gives a content creator freedom to publish their own content comes into existence... "Design View", WYSIWYG, drag & drop site builders... but every year it's something else intended to give more power back to the content creators themselves, rather than the developer who "has it all figured out" but the truth is, why shouldn't it? who knows the content better? You can do an excellent job in IA and winnow out content from every nook and cranny of their business and package it up as best you can but that is only the content for RIGHT NOW. The dream is an infallable WYSIWYM has been an ongoing debate for a long time, and rightly so; but the truth is our creators are going to keep figuring out ways to get their styles and their meaning in there SOMEHOW; the only other option is to limit their content and that should never be the right answer. Hopefully the future of content on the web means a friendly environment where both developers and content creators can live together and not as enemies which all too often feels like the case.

Great article and nice work on your CMS!

@jamieschmid
Note | January 19, 2014 7:17 AM
"Now, would either story have been satisfying and effective without the glitzy HTML5 effects? Yes. That means they didn't really need them."

I stopped reading after this.
Why make movies when we can read screenplays ?
Salah Khawaja | January 18, 2014 12:31 PM
Nice article. You are simply talk about componentizing content. In a way its akin why people using PowerPoint vs Word. It is easier to move content around and present it the way you want. More at decklaration.com
Justin Freeman | January 18, 2014 11:41 AM
This concept is by far new. Basically saying workflow should influence the application vs. application influencing workflow. There are many iterations of this product that have been in the market for years.
YJ Tso | January 17, 2014 1:39 PM
Great article! Modular content, or content blocks as some call it, is indeed a flexible and powerful way to think about content.
Having (admittedly) not used the feature (nor the tool for that matter) may I nevertheless ask a question about the implementation you've discussed here? When "designing" a content block - a "section" of modular content as it were - is there some micro template involved? Or does the user drag n drop elements into each content block, ad hoc?
I work at MODX.com and our CMS does support modular content in a very similar fashion to what you've suggested, however each type of content block is "micro-templated". There's a limitless variety of these micro-templates, but in selecting a "type" of content block, a user is choosing to work within the confines of that micro-template. They could change the template obviously...but I'm curious if you have "templating-on-the-fly" going on ;)
Thanks again for the great read. Can't remember the last time I actually read an *entire* article.
Lar | January 17, 2014 4:53 AM
Nice article, very thorough.

I remember the snow fall story, vividly, because of the way the story was told, not just the way it was written.

As for how many people actually read all the Snow Fall story? That could be true of any story from NYT or elsewhere so it's not a metric I'd focus on.

Yes, it would have taken (and did take) huge investment like Teehan & Lax's case studies but was it worth it?

I think so and NYT is now the place where I'll actually read rather than skim breaking news (you can literally get that anywhere).

NPR were one of the first I heard of thinking about modular content - there's a case study from them somewhere, worth seeking out.

Lar


Brian Sahagun | January 15, 2014 10:36 PM
Ironically I skimmed reading until I read Snowfalling... And it was likean avalanche until I stopped at the main topic which is "Modular Content".

Personally, it seems like the solution is targeted to all sorts of people from designersto developers to content creators. But the reality is each has its own field of expertise.

For a front-end designer, modular content happens in the CSS. For a content creator who uses a CMS, it happens in the custom theme template or the developers of the CMS. For the designer it happens in the visual design planning stage.

The fact is that there are people who want to mo e things around every now and then and there are people who want the same old view.
Dan | January 15, 2014 5:52 PM
Thanks for adding the note about ways to set make content more flexible in WordPress and Drupal. Most established open source CMSes have ways to do this, but it's not easy. I think this will change since good critiques like your have begun to mount. John Eckman has been saying similar things w/r/t WP and how to get the best out of it. E.g.: http://www.slideshare.net/jeckman/beyond-posts-and-pages-revised
ashvindx | January 14, 2014 10:35 PM
Good point, but it is already been applied for years now. Like other are saying, this has been included by WordPress designers to make home page and other page designs easier to maintain by users.
Ivan | January 14, 2014 6:18 PM
Eventcamp Wordpress theme has something called Layout Builder. It gives something very similar to what you propose. Instead of adding content to normal part of wordpress, you opt towards making content blocks and you set each block individually.
Ray | January 14, 2014 5:25 PM
I've always been a fan of modular content. This is why I ditched Wordpress and went to Squarespace. Now I don't have to worry about buying themes and being restricted to said theme's requirements. I'm free to do what I want.
Daniel Salgado | January 14, 2014 4:59 PM
I've used similar tools for creating content like Behance or Mailchimp and they're great because they don't limit your creativity. I love what your team is doing because you identified a problem, a necessity and then went on to creating a way to solve it. I hope to see more CMS with Modular in the future. Cheers!
Mark Simchock | January 14, 2014 2:52 PM
@Christopher Butler

As a matter of fact I have a WP OOP based framework that I've been working on in my free time (cough cough). It's actually more like a philosophy / architecture / methodology (so to speak) than a mere framework. In short, the building block of my WP "templates" are what I call Layout Objects (which are granular get_template_parts()). With each page (i.e., template) sliced up into Layout Objects the architecture enables you to manipulate / control each Object on a page by page basis. For example, don't want Widget X on Pages Y and Z. No problem!

The added bonus is all the rules / business logic is in a single file and not sprawling across (for example) footer.php, sidebar.php, index.php, etc. That is, the Layout Object are decentralize (and limited only by your needs and imagination) but the control is centralized and therefore easy to maintain / manage.

I realize you have your own CMS but if you're interested in hearing more just email me. I'm kinda in the middle - Okay, I haven't quite started yet :) - of a refactoring but as that's done I'll be pushing the classes up to GitHub, etc. Same old WP it is not ;)
Bill G | January 14, 2014 2:29 PM
Had to give up half way on this article. Too hard to read due to the conversational style of writing and patronising content. Is this a tutorial or just a sermon? The background colour / image / pattern means I have to strain my eye to read this post too. Sorry for all the negative feedback, just expected to learn something when I read SO much text. PS my eyes hurt ;'(
Audrius Jankauskas | January 14, 2014 1:35 PM
Have you tried ImpressPages? It's based on exactly the same idea. All content is based on widget. Each widget has it's own logic and managament tools. User can easily drag&drop anything anywhere. Check it out. Maybe you don't need to reinvent the wheel?
mike | January 14, 2014 1:15 PM
I'm confused by this article, did I miss something? Where are the practical example(s) of this system that I as a designer can use right now? Are you just saying modular is a good idea in a lot of cases? I mean didn't we already know that?
Christopher Butler | January 14, 2014 1:09 PM
I’m really appreciative of all the enthusiasm toward figuring out how to improve the content management experience, and specifically, hearing about all the different solutions you all have brought to your different platforms.

Some of them sound like they are pretty much in line with what we’ve built — which is cool! — but some of them aren’t. No harm there. But I think there’s a difference between what some of these approaches are and actual modular content that benefits the user’s creative process. In my opinion, that is the goal. So, it’s easy to say, “ho hum, we’ve been doing this for years,” but I doubt that those solutions actually feel — to the user — like what they’d actually want. So again, this is not about claiming ownership over an idea. In my opinion, the entire web is the product of the antithesis of that (though it’s teeming with ownership claims, of course). This is about us all saying, “hey, we can do this better. Let’s talk about how!”

One specific reply, though:

Marc: Every page ultimately has a URL, which keeps the “page” paradigm functional for accessing/sharing content. The blocks are associated with the page, and as far as search engines are concerned, contain content that is part of that page. Hope I’m answering your question properly. Thanks for reading!

And thanks, everyone, for reading, sharing, and commenting on this article!
Marc Carson | January 14, 2014 12:59 PM
Chris, thank you for the writeup. I love hearing about different approaches to content management, and your solution seems really wise considering the type of layout control that we're seeing around the web. Is your in-house system built around a page = url scheme, or is it more of a bucket-based system where e.g. articles and urls are dissociated?
Chris Hunter | January 14, 2014 12:37 PM
I've been using the new Divi template from Elegant Themes and it's a very nice approach of being able to customize individual pages with modular layouts. It's pretty much completely changed how I develop WordPress websites.

"The Divi Builder - The Divi Builder was made with user experience at the forefront of its priorities. The builder transforms elements into visual building blocks, allowing anyone to understand and edit the structure of their page without touching a single line of code. There are no limitations as to how builder elements can be customizations and arranged, making Divi the most flexible theme we have ever created. Divi will change the way you build websites forever."

http://www.elegantthemes.com/gallery/divi/
iuzzef | January 14, 2014 12:30 PM
Everyone here seems to be doing the same for years, I think it is not so easy yet. I, as a designer, am able to achieve this customization on Drupal with views and a bit of CSS and I am not even a Coder, however, there is not a perfect system yet. The problem I think is everyone is pushing their CMS and there is a very small common ground to benefit them all
J. Hogue | January 14, 2014 12:26 PM
The ideas are forward-thinking and the workflow seems to fit that as well. I assume that your clients using the system are pleased. One question I have is about Responsive Design (RWD). When an author creates a new page with these modular blocks of content, what is their expectation about how it will change based on viewport? Is the CMS responsive, giving the author the same sort of experience in the admin, or are they frustrated because they *seem* to have control over content at one particular size, but don't have that control over (presumably) smaller screen sizes?
igmuska | January 14, 2014 12:20 PM
I do understand what you are saying about how content draws interest in a web page/app and not so much its skin/template. And I also do agree that certain techniques such as BEM/OOCSS are useful in classifying content styles, they are often bloated and difficult to learn.
The problem with a full-blown self-hosted CMS is that once you publish your content, the reader's device often has to download all the stylesheets, scripts and interact with a database; this takes time, and if your content isn't interesting enough for the reader to wait, looking a swirling loading gif, you have failed.
On the other hand, I've been reading some very interesting applications: Jekyll and DocPad, that are simply amazing. These are just simple static site generators, serving up single pages based on templates. I've been seeing how these actually can cut the fat, meaning removing unneeded scripts and stylesheet declarations from a page, i.e., why should a slider be on a simple contact form.
These applications are the future in web design. I remember this was the approach that both Dreamweaver and Frontpage had for their users (type your content and let your application upload and style your page).
Just my two cents
Ben Weeks | January 14, 2014 11:58 AM
The squarespace landing page is one of the nicest custom things I've seen. Even for a huge commercial CMS company, they ultimately go custom where it matters most. Ease of production is a benefit, but what gets lost is the novelty we crave—that can often come from custom built presentations integrating the latest technology.
Jeff Eaton | January 14, 2014 11:54 AM
Great post, with a really solid analysis of the problems that we're all running into with CMS-powered projects.

The majority of the projects I work on are news and publishing related, so the pendulum swings back a bit -- they need much more consistency due to the non-negotiable content reuse requirements, but they face an increasing demand for high touch design treatments of the articles. I'm not yet convinced that the "Add a 2-up content chunk," "Add a full-spread content chunk," etc approach is sufficient for those scenarios: it results in a chopped-up narrative flow for stories that need to live as a single unit even if they're getting extra presentational gloss.

For a LARGE number of sites, though, the approach you outline is a great solution. We rolled the very same approach out on a couple of large marketing sites and an .edu recently, and they've been pleased with the outcome.
Jonathan Paylor | January 14, 2014 11:49 AM
Your "Modular Content" CMS concept basically describes exactly how Concrete5 CMS has been working for years, working with "blocks" of content that can then be re-arranged on the page, except they take it a step further by combining it with on-page editing - but it isn't as well known as other CMS and deserves more credit than it gets. This is the first article I've seen arguing for the same style of content management though.
Maksim Surguy | January 14, 2014 11:48 AM
I believe one of the best implementations I have seen with this approach is a JS product called Sir Trevor JS : https://github.com/madebymany/sir-trevor-js

I have created an example app, a blogging platform for developers that shows the concept in action : http://codepad-blog.gopagoda.com/posts/new
Gavin | January 14, 2014 11:42 AM
Funny, I ran into the exact same problem of trying to fit the same content into different templates. After a lot of thought I realized that the only way to go was if I could make the content modular in some way. What you describe above is exactly what I did: break up the content into movable and editable blocks. Shows me that I'm heading in the right direction, thanks! ??
Bronwyn | January 14, 2014 11:31 AM
Very informational post. Educational and to the point on CMS. Thank you!
Linda Jenkinson | January 14, 2014 11:21 AM
I was surprised to see mention of all the different CMSs here that seem to do what you've done. I use ModX CMS and it also does the same thing.
Lana | January 14, 2014 11:13 AM
Excellent article! Just to add to suggested resources, take a look at the new Divi from ElegantThemes, which is based on the modular concept.
http://www.elegantthemes.com/gallery/divi/
jon walmsley | January 14, 2014 5:36 AM
Great article. I've been on board with content modelling for quite a while, but you're right - making a CMS that is enjoyable to use for the content editors is the tricky part - you're reducing them down from their happy 'designing their work in Word and copy-pasting it into the CMS' down to 'fill in a bunch of forms and thinking up metadata / tags'. They don't enjoy that approach.

One of our challenges is educating the users to the benefits of this method of content administration. It makes search work better, it means the content can be reused all over the place. It means you don't need to throw the content out when you do your next redesign. It keeps content as just that - CONTENT.

Content Modelling opens up a wealth of opportunities as to what to do with this content both now and in the future. But it's going to take us a while to convince people.
Dan | January 13, 2014 12:33 PM

Modular content is exactly how sites are built with ContentActivator. We use a system we call "Blocks" to build sites. So you can select templates of content to insert into your pages or blog posts. Best part of the system is everything was built to be responsive from the ground up. This makes for a really great way to not only create a website from scratch but as a CMS that gives the user a lot of creative freedom with their content.
Christopher Butler | January 13, 2014 10:27 AM
Jonathan: Nice, although, see previous comments about WP ;) In general, I’d say that personally, I am cool with WP. But professionally, there’s a reason why we continue to answer the buy or build question in regard to our own CMS with “build.”

MikeNGarret: Very cool :)

James: Exactly, and Dave Mello is probably in the process of leaving a comment to that end right now. Ultimately, the reason I spent so long in this article framing the context is because for us, our clients are either creative professionals or marketers. They bring a point of view that is typically one of frustration around the tools — either in terms of the labor required to make fairly simple things happen or the straight up “can’t do that’s” they hear so often. So we were really motivated to create something native to our development environment that brought about a meaningful change to the client experience. In regard to your concerns, they’re good questions. The future proofing issue doesn’t concern me any more than any website’s design would. These modules are directed by stylesheets just like everything else. If typography needs to change, it’s done centrally. So if the block quote style, for example, changes, it will change everywhere that it’s been used. As for editorial freedom, exactly! This is the line we’re treading here, especially in regard to the sort of “modularity” that Anjelique mentioned in an earlier comment. We want there to be as few possibilities for a user breaking their own site as possible ;)
Dave | January 13, 2014 10:20 AM
Thanks for all the comments! Lots of great ideas here. I wanted to mention a couple of points, that might reiterate some of what Chris was writing about. 

As Chris mentioned, we’re not in the business of building a distributable CMS platform. Rather, we strive to tailor a CMS experience that solves the needs of *our* clients, whilst facilitating the development processes that we follow. There are plenty of much smarter people out there building systems that are larger, and solve the needs of the greater developer community. This isn’t better or worse - its just different. 

In adding a modular content system to our CMS, we wanted the experience to be as easy and fluid for our non-technical clients as possible. Again, this is entirely subjective to the way that our CMS works, but I think we’ve achieved this pretty well. Since we’re foregoing out-of-the-box flexibility of a system like Drupal’s Views for a more tightly controlled, pre-programmed solution to fit each client’s specific needs, the overall process of creating and managing content and, specifically, modular content, is pretty streamlined. Again, thats not better or worse, per-se, just different. Which is also not to say that other systems aren’t (or can’t be, with configuration), just as streamlined. Obviously this is key, though - the more confusing the system, the more likely it won’t be used at all once the site launches. 

All that, though, is somewhat immaterial. NewfangledCMS is a system that we’ve developed over 10+ years, to serve the needs of our clients, and isn’t licensable. I don’t think Chris’ intention was to say that our approach is best, and therefore you should install our CMS, since, frankly, you can’t. I think Chris included a brief walkthrough of how the client would interact with the CMS simply to illustrate that the process can be flexible and easy. 

One of the key differences Chris *is* making, however, is not technical but conceptual. My sense is that, in general, this concept of ongoing content creation and design flexibility, specifically for designers and end-clients, is the exception, not the rule. In our decision to incorporate this system as a standard feature of our CMS, we wanted to frame the conversation *from the outset* with this type of content management in mind. As Chris mentioned, this has had an incredibly positive impact on our planning, prototyping, and the end result. 

My take away from this newsletter was really a challenge to reframe the content management conversation between developer, designer, and client. Whichever you are, understand that once the decision is made to build a site around a templated system, content design limitations are immediately imposed. The challenge, then, is to find that elusive compromise - a system that allows for creative flexibility, but is also easy for the non-technical to manage. Thats what we’re trying to do here, and what, I think, Chris is encouraging everyone reading to do as well. Adopt this modular-content approach using whatever tools make the most sense for you. Then, plan for how it will be used early and often, so that the end result is a success.
James Smith | January 13, 2014 10:15 AM
@Simon @Luke: As I understand it, this concept is slightly different from a typical ExpressionEngine setup - Whilst you have no limit as to the kind and number of custom fields you create and display, this instead is about empowering the non-technical authors to assemble their own fields as they go.

Krea's Content Elements add-on purports to do this and appears to have been well received by the community (http://devot-ee.com/add-ons/content-elements)... though I've not tried it myself. Staying in the ExpressionEngine realm, there is also the Shortcode add-on which could go some ways to achieving this (http://devot-ee.com/add-ons/shortcode)... as well as the years-old technique of combining Matrix/Grid with template variable replacement methods (Stash/String/NSM Transplant) to allow an author to easily place complex chunks of content in the middle of a textarea with simple tags (eg: http://expressionengine.stackexchange.com/questions/3675/using-stash-to-replace-matrix-image-slugs/)

I have several concerns with this concept that prevent me from fully embracing it:

1. Future-proofing:
In some respects it feels like the content is being coupled too tightly to a particular visual style that would harm its portability through years of redesigns and IA changes. Even if the actual visual style is technically abstracted, it's likely that while creating the content the author's choice of blocks is guided primarily by how it looks on the current front end. (Though there's a great counter-argument here: http://gadgetopia.com/post/8664)

2. Editorial freedom
Generally this is a good thing, but there's a line to be drawn somewhere between empowering the editor and abdicating your responsibility as a designer - it's the 'enough rope to hang yourself' argument. Furthermore, as Deane Barker points out, it also creates extra governance issues (especially in a large organisation): http://gadgetopia.com/post/7200

Overall though, this is a really important discussion to be having. As others have pointed out, there are already some CMSes that seem to be embracing this concept and it'll be interesting to see where this ends up.
MikeNGarrett | January 13, 2014 10:03 AM
Christopher Butler: I hear you and I think the team at Drupal does as well. Spark will be the first step down this route and it will be part of core in Drupal 8.

https://drupal.org/community-initiatives/drupal-core/spark
Jonathan Engstrom | January 13, 2014 9:35 AM
This is a great in depth article. I am a big fan of Wordpress and the open source nature of it all. I wonder if you are aware of the Advanced Custom Field flexible content plugin, which turns Wordpress into a very similar system to what you are describing. Here is the link - http://www.advancedcustomfields.com/add-ons/flexible-content-field/
Christopher Butler | January 13, 2014 7:43 AM
MikeNGarret: Yeah, that does look pretty similar. My only complaint with an approach like that one is that it’s a plugin maintained separately from the core CMS. So whoever is using it has to consider the current state of Wordpress’s release as well as Carrington’s. I do realize that many plugin developers are getting much better at trying to keep their releases as closely in sync with Wordpress’s but try as they might, it’s not always possible. Because Wordpress has almost completely relied upon the developer ecosystem to keep its functionality up to date with user need, I just have never felt comfortable recommending it as a platform to our clients. All that being said, this would obviously be a viable approach for plenty of people. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, that there are plenty of versions of this concept in other systems shows that it’s a conceptually solid approach that is responding to a real and urgent need. Thanks for sharing that link!

A: Sure, but that’s after you add a bunch of tinier plugin boxes to the small Wordpress box ;)

Mihovil: Nice. Have you read all of those?

Rich: See my comment to Mike.

Erich: We don’t offer test accounts — as I mentioned above, we don’t license our CMS separately from a client engagement. But I may embed a video here that shows the content blocks functionality in action. Stay tuned.

Simon: Cool. It’s been a while since I’ve looked closely at ExpressionEngine, and I’ll admit I’ve never really looked at CraftCMS. I’ll check them both out.

Steven: I’m sure it can. See my comment to Mike above. Same issue with plugins applies here.

Luke: Thanks for the additional info! I’ll definitely take a look at that.

Everyone: Thanks so much for reading (I’m sure it was a slog at points) and taking a moment to share your thoughts. It’s encouraging to see that this idea of modular content — not Newfangled’s version of it, but the concept in general — is something that so many designers and developers are excited about and are working hard to make tools to bring it to life. Keep up the good work, everyone!
Luke Stevens | January 13, 2014 7:23 AM
Interesting article. As Simon mentioned, ExpressionEngine has offered this flexibility *to a degree* for years, and Craft is really upping the ante with the modular approach: http://buildwithcraft.com/features/matrix (it was originally called "Blocks" for reasons similar to what is described in the article). Look forward to seeing what you guys have come up with - iteration is innovation, after all :)
Steven | January 13, 2014 7:17 AM
Great article.
I think Modular content could be the way to go. However, I believe that a CMS like Drupal can do an amazing job organising all those different types of content (if set up well).
Simon Cox | January 13, 2014 5:45 AM
Surely you are just splitting the content from the presentation and have put a nice flexible content entry form together. How you deliver that content consistently and in a layout (however flexible and especially as its flexible) that allows it to be responsive is still a challenge.
However, we have been able to do this in ExpressionEngine for several years now - and other CMS's such as CraftCMS as well. Nice article though.
Steven | January 13, 2014 4:35 AM
A very interesting view towards content first design. This article has broaden up my view towards web design and CMS. I believe modular design is still a fancy thing for agencies who has their own developers to hand code the systems for each client. Hopefully in the near future, there will be an easier open source CMS with modular system in mind for front end developers.
Erich Schicker | January 13, 2014 2:24 AM
Good approach. Is it possible to take a deeper look at your CMS or get any kind of test account to your system.
Rich | January 12, 2014 10:32 PM
http://www.advancedcustomfields.com/add-ons/flexible-content-field/
Mihovil | January 12, 2014 8:49 PM
Well, I think your article is great but when you had such promising title on it I thought it would be a bit more revolutionary than this http://goo.gl/xQidkI
A | January 11, 2014 7:03 PM
I've been working for the last two years with managing content in a huge WordPress setup with modular content, so yes, the idea's great (and we've made some really nifty pages), but no: the tiny box isn't so tiny and can be customized almost infinitely ;)
MikeNGarrett | January 11, 2014 5:44 PM
What about http://www.pagelines.com/dms/ or http://crowdfavorite.com/carrington-build/ ? Drupal offers similar solutions with panels and soon-to-come http://www.sparkdrupal.com/

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't these examples cover what you're proposing?
Christopher Butler | January 11, 2014 4:23 PM
Ashraf: That looks pretty neat. Thanks for sharing!

Michaud: Sure, CSS3 regions are great. No disagreement there. But your simple “nope” is creating a zero sum game that’s really not necessary here. What I’m talking about is a system that a content creator can use to have greater design freedom at the moment of creation and not have to even think about the markup being used to power her tools. In other words, not a developer. What the Adobe article describes are fantastic techniques for custom page creation (what the rather long middle section of this article covers), but they’d have to be associated with the modules I’m describing to have any benefit to the average user of our CMS. So, I don’t think this is an issue of putting the cart before the horse. What I’m talking about, in the end, is a user experience that we've steered our CMS toward. That's made possible, of course, by a variety of templating, markup, and other techniques. What you’re talking about is a possible component of the underlying system that makes that experience possible.
michaud | January 11, 2014 4:03 PM
Nope, we need modular templates, the content shouldn't be chopped up into chunks because if chopping content for layout purpose is putting the cart in front of the horse. What we need is css3 regions http://www.adobe.com/devnet/html5/articles/css3-regions.html
Ashraf Ali | January 11, 2014 3:20 PM
I love the depth you took to explore the logic of modular design and incorporating that into the backend design. I felt a lot of what you were saying is very similar to Squarespace's approach to their CMS.

Check this article out:
http://blog.squarespace.com/blog/introducing-layoutengine-2

See this video for more information:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2APg8jRmW-s#t=0
Christopher Butler | January 11, 2014 2:48 PM
mack: Great to hear. Thanks for reading!

John: Nothing that would be useful to share yet. We’ve got a dozen or so clients using this new content blocks approach. So far, most of them have built presentations that are mostly long pages of text + images, though the capabilities go far beyond that. Once it’s been in use for longer, I may be able to share some more.

Soren: Thanks for the link. I read through the page about Redaxo, and it certainly sounds very similar to what we’ve built (e.g. “As you are creating a block you need a module select the block to be edited. Modules are mini-templates that you can format the respective content area. Entering content via modules facilitates the maintenance of a consistent layout.”). Just goes to show that the approach makes good sense ;) One interesting point that they mention is the idea of “mini-templates.” What we’ve done is make sure that there are styles for every permutation of content using the blocks — things like padding and margin rules for how text wraps around media, etc. — so in a way, each media type is like its own mini-template… for lack of a better word ;)

David: Very cool. What I’m describing here is specific to our CMS, which we don’t license out beyond our clientele. But I bet there is a way to create a plugin for Wordpress (see Angelique’s comment below) that would essentially make each media type (text, images, videos, etc.) a macro. It might be a pain in the neck to support long term — which is my main complaint with the hack-with-plugins approach to Wordpress — but I’m sure it could be done. Like I (and Soren) pointed out before, this isn’t exactly a “new” idea. It’s just a step forward in response to what everyone clearly wants anyway.

Angelique: Interesting point, and yes, it probably is an issue of semantics. However, I’d stick to my guns on calling our system “modular,” as that’s exactly how it functions relative to the content being created by users long term. It’s not that all the site elements — the logo, search tool, navigation, etc. — are modular, like you described. And honestly, I’m not sure how useful that would be for a site user. It certainly would be great for a developer who wanted to use one site as a template for another. But the value here is in creating a system that allows users to approach their content creation process in a modular way, not build a CMS that uses modular site elements to give users complete structural autonomy (although many aspects of our CMS’s core code base are modular, but that’s another article). Frankly, most of our clients wouldn’t want that — they’re looking for stability, not an easier way to possibly break their site ;) Now, all that being said, I still think “modular” is exactly the right term. Each form that content can take in this system — whether text, image, groups of images, or video — is a module that can be edited individually and/or moved around the page. Image contents can be reused in other settings, too. Sounds pretty modular to me!

Thanks, everyone, for reading and sharing your thoughts. Keep ‘em coming!
Angelique | January 11, 2014 1:01 PM
I actually love this, especially and admittedly as someone who has spent many, many hours creating custom post types and templates for WordPress. I guess my only quibble is that the content itself in this system isn't modular; this system seems to be less about escaping the content box and more about recreating it with greater flexibility and options. I guess I reserve "modular content" for content (in whatever box/format) that I can pick up and move throughout a design if/when wanted ("Hey, the signup box is in the header! Now it's in the footer! MAGIC!"). Like I said, a minor/semantic quibble. Thanks for stretching the my thinking about web content and for sharing so many useful ideas and peeks into the Newfangled system.
David | January 11, 2014 11:14 AM
I've used this same block building approach on squarespace, behance prosite, smugmug and even some email templates on themeforest. It's a brilliant approach. Are you creating your own block cms that can be installed on a server then or would it be better to build a customizable block building template for Wordpress? The latter would be better I think so you can piggy back on all the functionality they already have. Not snappy though but if the client uses a CDN then it's fine.
Soren | January 11, 2014 11:10 AM
RedaxoCMS has been build on this approach years ago. It's german and their website is also only available in german, but on http://www.redaxo.org/de/doku/version-43/1-erste-schritte/16-einstieg-in-redaxo/ you can read about how they provide 'modules' to construct an article however you like. So if you ask them, it's not new at all ;-)
John Laswell | January 11, 2014 10:54 AM
Thanks for sharing how you and your team got to designing modularity. I really agree with the ease of use for Users with this approach and think it is why people actually use things like weebly! I'm more of a developer than designer most days, but I know the benifits of decoupling and 'modularizing' my code can really pay off in my own usability; I'm happy to see an approach to this modularization for usability.

Do you have any numbers on how common certain modules are used to fit the bill?

Thanks again for the read.
mack | January 11, 2014 9:41 AM
I’ve been designing websites for more than ten years. I love it, but the biggest stress of the work is managing my client’s expectations when they ask “can you do this?” and throw a bunch of links at me. I have mixed success explaining what you’ve written in this article, so I can’t thank you enough for giving me a link I can toss back at them. Great stuff.
Christopher Butler | January 11, 2014 9:02 AM
rsmith: I get your underlying point, I think — that platforms like Medium are absolutely not trivial, and certainly are going to set a precedent for other content management experiences. But I absolutely disagree that "it's what all websites are gonna be in the next few years," or that "nobody will be running their own site." I assure you, both of those statements are wrong.

Medium is great for individuals who want to contribute content to a community for the purposes of discourse. But it lacks all and any orientation toward doing business. I can't use Medium to attract prospects and lead them through a content experience that nurtures them as a lead. And that's fine, of course. It just means that I won't use Medium to create any professional content. And even if Medium offered some sort of "site creator," as long as all of that content lived on Medium's server, I probably wouldn't even consider it. Businesses need to own their content.

That brings me to my second point of disagreement — that nobody will be running their own site. As far as I can tell, there is a backlash at this very moment against giving so much away to these platforms and a renewed enthusiasm for, as Frank Chimero so elegantly put it, "homesteading."

Would love to hear your thoughts on that.

Thanks for reading and sharing your point of view :)
rsmith | January 10, 2014 11:28 PM
What you're describing is too little too late. You've got Medium all wrong if you think it's just a blogging tool. It's what all websites are gonna be in the next few years. Nobody will be running their own site. Everyone will be contributing to social content platforms.

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