Content Modeling is more than “fields”

When content management folk talk about “content modeling,” they are usually referring to the process of building templates for a CMS.  Besides the Content Management Bible by Bob Boiko, which is a great place to see how a lot of CMSes work, I found a series of excellent overviews of the discipline by Deane Barker of Blend Interactive, Inc., at Gadgetopia.

Barker says:

“Content modeling is the process of converting logical content concepts into content types, attributes, and datatypes.”

In academia, you can find inscrutably technical research on content modeling as the process of identifying the structure of documents algorithmically. (This gem from MIT scintillates! Content Modeling Using Latent Permutations, by Chen, Branavan, Barzilay, and Karger. 2009.)

But if that’s what is meant by “content modeling,” then there are essential aspects missing.

As content strategists, we face this technical view all the time, which I believe is descended from IT disciplines like “data modeling” for database design. We come on the scene talking about content purpose and process, and technologists ask us for template requirements, metadata fields, and data types. In these days of XML standards and the quest for the Holy Semantic Web, we find ourselves pushed into the thick of technical specification before we’ve had a chance to imagine what the content is supposed to be and do, let alone how it should be structured.

Returning to art

In my view, we’d be nearer the truth of “modeling” if we took our cues from other disciplines:

  • When a painter undertakes a monumental work of art, she doesn’t just run in with paintbrushes blazing. She sketches from life. She does études. She makes early decisions about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Murals often begin as drawings in miniature, which are enlarged to scale, then transferred to the wall.
  • The sculptor “models” in clay before casting in bronze.
  • The industrial designer creates digital “models” before production.
  • Developers create prototypes (just “models” by another name) before turning the coders loose.

Models serve as demonstration and instruction to the producers, the assistants, and the artists themselves. They remind and guide. They provide format and boundaries to inspire greater creativity.

Content must be modeled in this creative sense, as well as in the technical sense.

Some suggestions for modeling

  • Banish the “basic page” from your content types. The “webpage” is the content parallel to the “miscellaneous” category in information architecture. Far from being your standard content type, it should be your very last resort.
  • Ask the simple questions. Why are we creating this content form? What are people supposed to do with it? What does that mean for the other kinds of content we produce? How can they be combined into content “super-types?”
  • Do some content studies and sketches. Before you define technical requirements, spend time whipping up some real content to see how it behaves in your domain. If you already have content, gauge the consistency of its form from one piece to the next.
  • Test the usability of your content. Like a user interface, you should see whether people can actually use your content in the way it was intended. Do they get from it what you hoped they would?
  • Define the “rules” for each content type. You’re establishing conventions for the content creators, so they know what they’re doing, and so they can do it consistently over time.

By modeling your content in the artistic sense—by setting the forms and boundaries even before the content is “designed”—all the technical content management exigencies, like “fields” and “data types,” are set in their proper perspective. Templates are simply the mold into which your material is poured and out of which the sculpture emerges, fully formed.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.


  1. […] sense. This is where content modeling (something Jonathan Kahn explains well in A List Apart and R. Stephen Gracey covers at length) comes into […]

  2. A very nice post here – I appreciate your swinging the pendulum back toward a humanities perspective: your analogies were well drawn and shed light on the subject rather than mystifying it further. Looking forward to checking out some of your other posts.