We are bound by our margins. I was thinking about information presentation when I was working on a personnel issue this week. Our corporate organization chart is a set of linked PDFs. My team – library, corporate records, and archives – lives on one page. An 8.5″ x 11″ (or almost A4) page. I was struck by how we continue to present digital information constrained by its physical analog. So many questions.

I don’t really think about digital format much because it is usually in the background. We are so accustomed to responsive web sites, that resize in your browser. In fact, when I find one that isn’t, it really jumps out at me. Rigid fonts, scroll bars at the bottom of your browser window, the whole 9.

For a moment I was worried that our legal publishing services weren’t responsive. But while they are still built for printing, I was glad to see I could resize a case opinion by resizing by browser. In fact, once I resized it to the width of a tablet, on my desktop, LexisNexis auto switched to a mobile layout.

One thing about the pandemic is that I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about the possible. When I join a call, I no longer assume anyone’s background is their actual background and have never used my actual surroundings in a call. Everything is virtual and imaginary and we can be anything – and anywhere – we want.

So to hit paper constraints seems a bit funny. It’s container-before-content. There’s no real reason to limit a digital object in this way.

Hit the Shift to Print

Unfortunately, it reflects an approach to information delivery that isn’t very useful. It was common to reduce printing costs by putting digital versions of content online, often in PDF. In that way, the document could be downloaded and printed. Note, that the printing never went away. Organizations just shifted the cost of printing to someone else.

Annual reports, government documents, technology manuals. All converted to digital objects that were 8.5″ x 11″ containers of information. One of the reasons I was so glad we were going through an accessibility compliance project at work was that we would finally get rid of a bunch of PDFs.

Our library had just one PDF. It was a really nice, two column table of KF Modified classifications. A crib sheet. And it took about 15 minutes to make it into a more accessible web page.

Every organization has documents that are PDFs that do not need to be. I mean, every week our local school sends a PDF home to parents as an email attachment. The content of the PDF could be placed in an email without impacting the experience. The presentation might need to be rethought, but it shows that the decision-making (tool, container, content) is backwards (content, container, tool).

PDFs aren’t [always | the only] problem though. You can create a PDF of any size digital object, if you have the need. It’s not the digital format or tool that creates the constraints. It’s our decision-making when we are trying to share information. Does the container come first? or the content?

The container should only really matter if the output needs to be constrained. If the document has to be printed off to be submitted, it should be in a format that is constrained to go to a printer. If the object needs to be viewable on a small-factor screen, like a phone or tablet or kiosk, then it should be constrained in a way to make it usable on that screen size.

But in other cases? That’s how I felt when I looked at the org chart. Our team was broken into boxes. The first row, no problem. But as the tree became more complex, hierarchy broke down and teams that had been horizontal were now vertical. Why? Because the container was an 8.5″ x 11″ page.

An animation showing that an organization chart should be able to spread beyond a print format boundary.

The chart sacrifices visibility for its container. Instead of using as much space as is necessary for a hierarchy, the hierarchy gets constrained. The question to ask now is: which is more important?

Spread Out

There is probably some maximum size for a digital object but I’m not sure what it would be. This 100,000 pixel wide photo of the Milky Way galaxy, taken over 12 years, isn’t too big. If you want to, you can zoom in on any part of it. It doesn’t need to be presented as so many pieces of 8.5″ x 11″.

I’ll stick with the organization chart because it’s familiar and what I started with. But it’s not the only document or digital object we create that could use a rethink on constraints. Pretty much any chart. And a PowerPoint that isn’t going to be shown on a projector (but shared as a digital or drawing file) can also be any size. This would include outlines or relational text that doesn’t need to be in a linear document.

The organization chart is something that is crying out for horizontal space. And there are great ways to do it. In fact, a lot of our organizations have interactive organization charts built into tools that we use.

In the case of our corporate organization chart, I think it’s both legacy output and tool selection before content. If I understand correctly, the chart is created and linked in Vizio and the outputted as PDF. It’s a workflow that was created when a 14″ monitor was common and some people might actually have printed a copy.

There’s Microsoft Teams, for one. It shows a hierarchy for any of your internal contacts. I’m guessing it’s using Active Directory, so as people join or leave your organization, it’s up to date.

A screenshot of a Microsoft Teams contact hierarchy.

Teams is a pretty under developed product, though, and this has a very rudimentary web page feel to it. As you click on a person, the next level of the hierarchy appears.

A better example is Microsoft SharePoint. Accessing our internet at http:\[intranet URL]OrganizationView.aspx (it seems to work even if it’s not exposed in any other way), I can see a vertical and horizontal hierarchy.

A screenshot of the out of the box organization chart on SharePoint 2013. Horizontal images to left and right represent peer managers and other staff who share same supervisor.

This view, unfortunately, requires Internet Explorer and Microsoft Silverlight, so you may have only see the HTML version. It’s too bad, because this is a much better representation. And it uses the space much better. It doesn’t try to constrain the information for publication. Instead, it uses as much space above and below, and left and right, of the person at the node you’re investigating.

I touched on this in a post about PowerPoint, which I think is so much more flexible than a presentation tool. I used it for a huge navigation map by just making the slide huge. Sure, I could have just used tiny labels but if the audience also has PowerPoint (or I can turn it into a PDF for portability), then I can literally go to any lengths.

A screen shot of a web site navigation restructuring on a PowerPoint slide that is about 30 inches wide.

Ask the Questions

First, do we need to create the information resource? In the case of a corporate organization chart, probably not. It duplicates, poorly, automated solutions at hand. But if we do, the content and its use should drive additional decisions.

Second, do we have a need to constrain the information container? Is the goal to print it? What are the tools the reader will have, whether screen size or software application? If the answer is no or even “it depends”, then we can start to think more about a canvas that suits the content, rather than content that suits the canvas.

Lastly, given the answers to those questions, do we really have any limitations to our space usage? I realize long web pages are daunting. And wide spreadsheets and images and PDFs can be a pain to navigate, especially if there’s no way to zoom in and out.

But we are creating digital information and we are sharing it digitally. Our information may not benefit from being constrained to a print analog’s shape. We should push the boundaries out if it will make the information easier to use.