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Introduction to the Style Guide: 2

Separate Content from Form

Intelligent layout choices will make your documents more readable on video screens. Layout should always be dictated by the needs of the content, but you are likely to find that as you think more closely about meaningful layout, some inspiration will begin to flow back in the other direction, yielding you a clearer perception of how to structure the content and offering fresh ideas on the kind of meta-data with which a document has to be marked up. Whether you mark up documents in today's HTML or tomorrow's XML, you will find that consistent and fine-grained mark-up is a prudent investment if you plan to keep your documents in use 10 or 20 years into the future.

Studies of this aspect of the human-to-computer interface and of website usability are still fairly new, but there is not a great deal that is resoundingly new in today's legibility guidelines. Our knowledge of how to present text well makes gradual progress. This understanding is informed by the wisdom acquired by printers over hundreds of years and established in the 20th century as a key part of typographical studies.

In the web era, we need to revisit some of our established notions about legibility, having at last found a means to practise a strict separation between content and form. With cascading style sheets (CSS), it is nowadays possible to vary the appearance of reams of information by just tweaking a few controls.

Style sheets are the documents that contain these controls. If correctly marked up, the mailing address at the head of a letter can afterwards be moved left, centre or right simply by changing the style sheet. Not only is it nowadays a wasted effort to carefully format raw text the way we did in the typewriter era: in addition, we can also offer readers their pick of presentation styles when they are served a source document.

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