Screens, Research and Hypertext

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The Web Is Not for Printing

Why do we saddle a medium that is not made for printing with a set of tools built for printing?

I built my first professional website in 2009. I was both late to the game and a total amateur. Three years prior, I'd been a philosophy professor. In those intervening years, I was a staff writer at

I knew nothing about building a website. But I was possessed of two secret weapons.

  1. A brother who had been working on the web as long as the web had existed.
  1. The confidence of a mediocre white man.

So I worked with two of my colleagues to re-engineer the entire website. There was some structure (custom post metadata—ugh). But there was also a lot of hacky code and a big fat WYSIWYG editor.

By the time I was hired to help the U.S. Congressional Budget Office rebuild its website, I had learned about content strategy and attended a full-day workshop with Karen McGrane. There I converted to the Gospel of Structured Content and rejected the heresies of blobby WYSIWYG body fields.

That's where I learned that the WYSIWYG was invented by the team at Xerox's PARC research center. And that by the time of the WYSIWYG, Xerox had already developed the laser printer.

Photo of one of the very first laser printers, created by Xerox and manufactured in the early 1970s.

The problem with selling laser printers was that businesses had this great way to print documents, but no real way to create them.

The WYSIWYG was literally invented to sell printers.

The web isn't a document, and it's not made to be printed.

So why do we keep saddling it with tools built for printing?

For more context

The WYSIWYG makes sense when you presume that "research output" and "PDF report" are synonyms.

What to read next

Modern website design conventions really do make reading scholarship on a screen into a dreadful experience.

Other items of interest

What's so great about content strategy?

Nelson is right. The web should be much more than a set of documents with some navigation around them.

Breaking the print paradigm is why this project looks terrible on mobile.