The View from the Knowledge Bridge: Navigating Mergers and Mash-ups

What happens when people from two different disciplines get together to try to produce a third thing? Sometimes they need a knowledge bridge. During a career spent mostly in traditional book publishing, I’ve seen that those in technology, especially web and interactive, are often involved with words, writing, and digital texts of all kinds, but probably aren’t well attuned to text—the look, the sound, the flow. And the text often has a different meaning to the digital team than it does to the editorial team.

On the other hand, the technology industry has gifted the print publishing industry with new ideas about team-based project work, management, and even testing. Interactive design has inspired print publishers to get creative with works they could once only see as static, fixed, and 2D. In 2013, you actually hear publishers speak offhandedly about “user experience.”

It’s in online publishing, when the two bodies of domain knowledge attempt to collaborate, that gaps appear. You’d think that there wouldn’t be much of a gap between print and digital/online publishing. After all, it’s all the same content, isn’t it? That’s where the trouble starts.

The word “content,” as we use it today, comes from technology, where it essentially meant anything that validated the code by displaying correctly. When applied to essays, articles, or literature, the word raises the hackles of traditional print publishing people. For them, “content” can never be “anything”—it’s the product of their labor, their intellectual effort. Content is the thing itself, not the equivalent of an early television test pattern.

It’s the concept of content that is the San Andreas Fault of online publishing. And what is equally disturbing to practitioners of traditional print publishing—editors, writers, and designers especially—is the mutability of the finished product. In other words, when a piece of text is edited, it should stay edited. A color, once specified, should look the same wherever it’s viewed. Fonts should not change sizes.

That lack of control of the finished product is one of the toughest things for traditional print practitioners to accept. The finished product used to be the goal. Now it’s just a stop along the way.

Putting the Magazine Online

Last year, accessibility manager Whitney Quesenbery asked if I would help bring the User Experience magazine online; I had been involved not only in online publishing, but also in helping print-experienced producers rethink their work in terms of digital.

From the beginning, the project was more than just a simple transfer of a print product to screen-readable access; after all, it was by and for UXers. The magazine team wanted a true online published product, with its own features that complemented the print magazine without copying it (see Figure 1).

Whitney and her team knew a lot about websites, backend issues, and interaction design. They had experience in text editing, print design and layout, and print production. (And they were astonishingly great when the time came to pick up their shovels and load those back issues into the system.) Their ability to recognize problems and find solutions, to create processes and follow schedules, in short, to work productively as a team, was inspiring.

I was feeling a bit unnecessary until one day when it seemed that the requirements of the web display page differed in places from those of the print magazine. The abstract, as it appeared in print, just wouldn’t work online for several good reasons. Since creating a new summary just for the web was a new editorial task, I started a style sheet that outlined the requirements for the new summary paragraph.

Not that a style sheet is unheard of in web production—there are style sheets cascading all around us—but an editorial style sheet is, or can be, far more wide-ranging and completely customizable to the individual work. It can be as detailed as indicating the preferred spelling of a word, or which compound words to hyphenate and which to leave open. It can be as broad as a global ruling for (or against) serial commas. A modern, hybrid editorial style sheet would also include rules for creating keywords, SEO best practices for the article, and rules for forming titles, headers, and sub-heads that work both for digital and print consumption. An editorial style sheet is usually a living document, growing as the project moves ahead. It’s a tool that editors understand and web creators find useful. This style sheet turned out to be the first bridge.

Two screen images.

Figure 1 (left). The opening pages of User Experience magazine’s online incarnation. The new summaries appear in six languages.
Figure 2 (right) MetPublications exists within the Metropolitan Museum’s site, under a low ceiling caused by the museum’s dynamic header. Inside the MetPub environment, it’s a browser’s paradise.

Constructing MetPublications

Not all digital magazine conversions are alike: for some, its’ attitudes—mindsets—that must be bridged.

MetPublications, a part of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, is a portal to the museum’s vast book and online publishing program. MetPublications allows visitors to search almost 700 book and online titles; read, download, and search the full contents of over 375 out-of-print titles; purchase print-on-demand copies of out-of-print titles, and much more (see Figure 2).

Rob Weisberg, senior project manager in the editorial department, was part of the core team (two from the digital media department and two from the editorial department) that brought MetPublications to launch in a matter of months. Rob sees the knowledge gap as more of a conceptual—even a mindset—gap. Nevertheless, he found himself doing his share of bridging. Rob observed that print publishing people—editors, designers, production teams—are used to a linear process and are in the habit of thinking in a linear or sequential way. Those who come from technology industries are trained to work in teams and develop in parallel. He points out that print folks update in stagger-steps (by reprint or by edition). With digital folks, “if they can’t do it dynamically, forget it!”

Part of bridging may be to act as a translator. Rob learned to speak of everything in terms of files. After all, both sides understand what a digital file is, so the object under discussion is called the same thing, no matter whose object it is.

Rob also came to the conclusion that print is already digital in significant ways. In fact, redistribution of resources in most publishing operations continues to shift from print to digital. And print professionals, such as editors, already have some digital skills, including knowledge of HTML and CSS. Print operations must be conversant with a degree of digital, but the opposite is not true; digital can get by without understanding the print side.

Another key observation: it’s more about keeping negotiations going rather than having a recipe. The digital side keeps changing; the print side changes very little. The trend is more toward overlapping knowledge zones.

Collaborate on Metadata

Rob also discussed the growing arena for knowledge exchange that has critical importance to both domains: metadata.

Metadata, for print, is the descriptive information that is attached to, stands in for, and is gathered in place of the document or work itself. Print works often use catalog or flap copy and details, table of contents, author biographies, and sometimes indexes for this purpose; in other words, much of what already exists in print volumes as front and back matter. But now the smart use of metadata for digital works includes keywords, tags, and intelligent indexing.

Why is metadata so important to the print/digital collaboration? It’s because search, and what the publishing industry calls “discovery,” is so difficult, despite advances in search capabilities in the past years.

Because MetPublications included both printed works and digital, web-based content and searching, metadata creation had to blend knowledge from both print and digital sides about how to do it. The team collectively chose to use the print metadata (semantically clear descriptions, in sentences) as the style for MetPublications titles. But it took digital media team member Amy Liebster to bridge the gap and educate the print/editorial members about the importance of tags and their proper creation. After that, tags were intelligently generated for each title and were provided for each title as part of the production process.

Building Bridges

What are some ways to engineer the benefits of a bridge, either of knowledge or mindset, in any collaboration? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Seek out knowledge on both sides. Ask team members to list what they think is relevant to the project. Be very specific. Look for overlaps.
  2. Ask team members to write down what they think is the most important element of the project. For some it will be the final product, but for others it will be process related, such as meeting the deadline, or using some innovative feature or workflow. Differing mindsets often appear when people express what’s most important to them in a project.
  3. Create a cross-discipline dictionary that everyone can share and add to. I’d start it off with the following entries (change definitions to match your team’s assumptions):
    • Content: Either “characters that validate code” or “the end result of all our hard work; our finished product.” Content matters.
    • Edit: Either “shorten so that it fits the text field provided” or “carefully sculpt the text to perfection.”
    • Final: Either “is live online” or “is already on press.” (And either way, it probably isn’t.)
    • Typo: An old-fashioned word for a spelling, grammatical, or text display error. However it occurred, and wherever in the process it happened, it needs to be fixed. Typos are not to be tolerated. Typos do not “not matter.”
  4. Name a translator, someone who seems most adept as an explainer. Ask the person to explain the activities of one discipline to the other—while standing on one leg.
Kostick, A. (2013). The View from the Knowledge Bridge: Navigating Mergers and Mash-ups. User Experience Magazine, 13(4).
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