[Home]FormOverContent

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The opposite of ContentOverForm.

One major web design pitfall (among other media). This is exemplified by sites which are not navigable without the use of Flash and or Javascript. Any time the importance of conveying information is placed second to looking good.

Something which exhibits FormOverContent tendencies is not necessarily bad — it can still be quite entertaining. It only becomes ineffective when the purpose of something is to actually convey some important Content, and the emphasis on form prevents that, or makes it less useable.

This is a growing trend in many forms of media. The web. MTV/popular music. The 2000 US presidential elections. The evening news. Major movies (Charlie's Angels, anyone?)

The reason is advertising. FormOverContent generates popularity. However, it does not automatically translate into influence. ContentOverForm is better at that. The ideal is something of substance that is also aesthetically pleasing, which will be both popular and influential, but often you only have the resources for form or content but not both.

Contrast the ParableOfTheTable.


You can also have FormOverContent where the form is meant to imply worthwhile content: IE, FormIsContent?. A prime example of this is the career of Brian Setzer. He started out playing hot lead guitar and singing for the Stray Cats, a rockabilly revival band. Rockabilly is not a musical genre about content, the way singer-songwriter folkie stuff is. It is about form. The guitar player plays hot. The songs are about cars, guitars and love, by which we mean sex. And also about how cool the Stray Cats are.

There is nothing wrong with this, and as a matter of fact I enjoy rockabilly music. It is just a prime example of FormOverContent. But after the Stray Cats broke up, he started his solo career, with an album named The Knife Feels Like Justice, and on this album, instead of writing songs about guitars, cars and girls, he wrote songs about justice and Django Reinhardt. Again, nothing wrong with that, and I enjoyed that, but if the image is more serious, with black suits and white shirts and no visible tattoos, playing an acoustic guitar and singing about old dead jazz guys, does that elevate the content? Or does it just provide a differing form to ride over the content? Does changing the form change the content?

And then Setzer went back to singing about cars, guitars, and love (and sex) with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Rockabilly with a really awesome backup band, basically. I'll bet a whole lot more people have heard "Jump, Jive, and Wail," than have heard "The Knife Feels Like Justice." What does the content seek to accomplish, and how can the form help or hurt that goal?

Well, it depends. I don't know that Run-DMC playing an Aerosmith song changed that song's content by recontextualizing it as hip-hop. Similarly, Public Enemy and Anthrax playing "Bring The Noise" together doesn't change the content much, even if the form is now harder, faster and whiter. But Leftover Salmon playing "Gin and Juice" with southern accents and bluegrass instruments in a jamband fashion changes the content fairly drastically. -- DaveJacoby

Excellent points, all. Got me thinking...

Style is very entertaining, but that isn't informative. That's an appeal to the underlying emotions. Not a bad thing (a good thing, actually), but the emotional intent — the motivation — is best served as the colour, the texture of the message.

I agree that structure and style do provide meaning that is important, providing they are unified and explanatory with respect to the message you are trying to convey. If the structure is conventional, it also provides CommonContext to move information quickly. For instance, we all know the index of a book is in the back. If it appeared on page 127, it would be disorienting. On the other hand, breaking agreed structure provides a lot more information. If someone tried to shake your hand with their left hand, you would think more about that than if they shook your hand with their right.

Style helps provide ParaLanguage along with the content, which provides insight into the motivation behind the work and the temperament of the author. Style is entirely about the feel of the work. Sometimes it's good to just feel, as in with music, but it's bad to only ever feel. Hence, content over form, but not only content, never form. -- SunirShah


[The Web Is Ruined and I Ruined It!] talks about the "ruining" of the web by FormOverContent use of HTML, and how style sheets and XML will save the web soon. It was originally published in April 1997.


See LeTonBeauDeMarot for some discussion of form/content issues.

Neglected in most (perhaps all) discussions of form and/vs/over content is creative energy and time consumed by considerations of form that could be better expended on developing the content. The seduction of WYSIWYG production tools is very costly to business. Considerations of font and placement and weight of line and layout of page detract from effective production of content and flow and effect of language.

I founded a technical writing company, and began hiring and training writers. Right away, I discovered that it was easier to train writers in engineering than it was to train engineers in writing. Next, I discovered that the tools we were using (InterLeaf?, FrameMaker?, Ventura Publisher, Word) actually got in the way of getting the job done. The first clue was in the metrics — it took me 2 hours a page to produce technical docs, and it took everyone else (not just my staff, but national averages) from 4 1/2 to 5 hours a page for the same stuff. The difference was in the method. I wrote in plain text, and formatted the material when it was completed, and everyone else formatted as they went along, paying painful attention to font and weight and precise layout.

I took the WYSIWYG tools away from the writing staff, and made them the exclusive domain of the (much lower cost) formatting staff. Writers had to use plain text editors, with a very simplified nroff-style coding system to show the structure of the material. A printing filter produced nicely (not perfectly) formatted output, suitable for proofreading and technical editing purposes. Another filter pre-tagged the material to give the formatters a head-start on final production when the docs were ready to wrap up.

We nearly doubled our production (87 percent increase) with this method.

Yes — format is important for the final delivery. But style is costly, and has to be weighed against benefit. Plain text usenet, and wikis, are giving communication back to the wordsmiths. -- JerryMuelver


Your experience seems to confirm that there is a minimum level of formatting needed to express structured ideas in text, in order to convey the structure. Not high or "too much" formatting, but more than nothing. I think it's mostly concerned with whitespace and indenting rather than fonts and weights.

Wikis, and indeed HTML itself, tends to fall below what I consider the minimum. If you tie an Italians hands behind his back, he becomes dumb. I feel like that on Wiki sometimes. -- DaveHarris

Wikis are meant to be fast, collaborative and immediate; communication is everything, form is nothing (or next to it). They're a bit like phone calls: free-flowing, jerky, filled with typos, mis-spellings, ummmm's, errrrrr's, whatever. Subject to deletion at any time, why spend time on formatting your output? Wikis are effective communication, not end-products like cereal boxes where form is everything. -- FrankBrooks

Wikis are meant to be slow, collaborative and always. Structure is essential to organize it and to present the information to the reader. Jerkiness and typos aren't appreciated. You have time to consider your reply because the wiki is always here, so take the time to reply well. Wikis are an end product. This wiki, for instance, seeks to be a repository of information on how to build an (online) community. It will be here for a long time. What you say will be here for a long time. Write well, and for the future audience. -- SunirShah


The layout of text can itself convey information. Compare the information in a table, or the information you get from the horizontal rules on wiki pages vs what you get if you smash it all together. The spatial relationships between blocks of text can tell you things about how those blocks of text relate to each other. And color and font choices, background images, etc. can all be used to create a mood which enhances the experience of reading the text. That's not important when the information you're imparting is the technical specs for the latest model widget, but it can be quite useful if you're trying to entertain. Or imagine a guidebook designed so that reading stuff about bad parts of town made you feel vaguely uneasy...

That said, people spend way too much time futzing with fonts. Give me LaTeX over MS Word any day (OK, making a resume is much easier in Word, or better yet PageMaker but for anything more than 1-2 pages I don't want What You See Is All You've Got).


I agree that FormOverContent is a pretty awful problem on the Web as a whole, and that the inappropriate use of tools like Flash and Javascript are often to blame. However, it should not be suggested (as some people might think is being suggested above) that the use of Javascript is necessarily a bad thing. While it is unfortunate that Javascript is not implemented in every browser, and not implemented that well in the browsers where it is implemented, I think that the use of Javascript can be very important in providing Form that helps to present Content in ways that could not be achieved otherwise.

As one general example, consider Form as it is structured in time rather than just space. Javascript enables more operations to be done on the client-side rather than the server-side, so that information can be reformatted and delivered in more perspicuous manner based on user request, without the user having to wait nearly as long in many cases. This can be very important. -- CalvinOstrum?

Some kinds of content cannot be conveyed (or conveyed as well) within some forms. Consider interactive maps, whether they change in space (as MapQuest? helping you see different views of your destination) or in time (as the WallStreetJournal?'s maps of the Iraq war). JakobNielsen has a lot to say about the best way to present information, but so does EdwardTufte?.


Home owner associations

Perhaps the ultimate example of FormOverContent thinking is a "home owner association" (HOA), popular in many American cities. The basic premise to this nearly-GatedCommunity model is that the HOA has the right to maintain TheCollective's property values, arguing that TheIndividual may randomly do something to lower property values, such as painting their house bright orange or failing to mow their FrontLawns. While HOAs vary, some may even contract to fix your house without your permission and then place a lien against your house for the bill.

However, since our homes are not really a common resource, this is a bit offensive to most people. While HOAs may be growing in popularity or not, it's quite possible that as more people grow experienced with them, society will devalue a neighbourhood controlled by a HOA, and thus a HOA will ironically drive down their collective property values.

This may be worse if people only do the minimum required by their HOA, the HOA may impose more and more draconian regulations to maintain a certain "standard". This means that everyone is forced into a homogeneous boring blob. Homogeneous boring blobs also may lower property values as they drive people insane.

Either way, what ideally constitutes a beautiful neighbourhood is not appearance, but the desire to present your FrontLawn in a way pleasing to some community in that neighbourhood. By striving to present a perfect image of a community, the HOA fails drastically to construct even a modicum reality of a community.


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