Perspectives for document design from document theory

2023 Annual Meeting of the Document Academy

Design is about the human experience and habitability of the world. Findeli« La recherche-projet en design et la question de la question de recherche », 2015, p. 51‑52.
calls it a generalized human ecology, as it is concerned with the ecological but also cultural and spiritual relations between humans and their environment. Design is diagnostic and prescriptive, an example of “projective” epistemology: designers view the world as a project to realize, rather than an object to know.

This definition of design implies that document design is less about what documents are and more about what they should do. This aligns with the evolution of document theory from an ontic view of documents to a functional one, which was pioneered by the European documentation movement in the first half of the twentieth century and reintroduced in the literature during the 1990sBuckland, « What is a document? », 1997.
. However, research in document design has little to do with documentation or its resurgence as “neo-documentation”, as Couzinet« Sur le Traité de documentation », 2021.
calls it. Document design is usually taught within communications programs, in either English or fine arts departmentsSchriver, Dynamics in document design, 1997, p. 92‑93.
. As an academic field, it eventually folded into information design,The Information Design Journal was created in 2006 at John Benjamins by merging Document Design and Information Design.
the purpose of which is “creating effective communications”Renkema, « Editorial », 2006 ; see also Pettersson, Information design, 2002.

Information design has been criticized for its lack of theory. Carliner« Current challenges of research in information design and document design », 2006, p. 10‑14.
warned about the field’s tendency to generalize findings despite its limited understanding of topics such as information overload or the World Wide Web.On the absence of the Web in document design research, see also Shriver’s interview by Carliner (« Ten years after », 2007, p. 167).
Document theory can help address some of these challenges. Zacklad« Information Design », 2019.
gives us an example of this. He draws from document theoryLund et Skare, Document Theory, 2009 ; Buckland, « Document Theory », 2018.
to define information design as the interplay between textualization (creating content information), documentarization (shaping the medium) and auctorialization (creating author identities). Zacklad puts documentarization at the heart of information design. Documentarization can be internal (the organization of fragments into documents) or external (the relational organization of documents, e.g. classification); it can involve different roles or positions (author, editor, printer/programmer, distributor, reader); it implies significant differences between designing the systems that involve documents (“system-oriented design”) and designing the documents themselves (“author design”).

Here, we examine system-oriented and author design for documents through the example of document graphs. Document graphs are interrelated documents or fragments of documentsArribe, Conception des chaînes éditoriales, 2014 ; Perret, De l’héritage épistémologique de Paul Otlet à une théorie relationnelle de l’organisation des connaissances, 2022.
. The concept differs from that of knowledge graphs, which do not necessarily involve documents but in fact exist mostly as databases. Fragment-based document graphs are used in XML publishing chains. Document graphs are called collections, wikis, non-linear notebooks, digital gardens; they constitute hypertextual documentation. Author design for document graphs involves analysis and synthesis: analysis is achieved by creating documents, involving textualization (taking notes, expressing ideas) and documentarization (adding metadata); synthesis is achieved by linking documents. System-oriented design for document graphs defines how they can be made and creates tools to help with their complexity.In his early experiments with hypertextual documentation, Engelbart (Augmenting Human Intellect, 1962, p. 62) wrote that the biggest challenge was to keep track of all the links. This is still the main issue for the system-oriented design of hypertextual documentation.

To examine document graphs practically, we use the example of Cosma, a visualization program created during the HyperOtlet research programme. Cosma was inspired by the history of hypertextual documentation, from commonplace books to the Web. It belongs to an emerging wave of “tools for thought”Matuschak et Nielsen, How can we develop transformative tools for thought?, 2019.
enabled by lightweight markup languages (for writing) and web technologies (for interface-making). Some of these tools enable the creation of document graphs but they lack support for scientific writing, incentives to do knowledge organization and affordable publishing capabilities. Cosma fills this void. It is a visualization tool that uses open, standard formats for interoperability with creation tools. It reads a collection of individual records and redocumentarizes them into a single, standalone hyperdocument called a “cosmoscope”, which presents the document graph as an interactive network of index cards. A cosmoscope includes features that help reduce complexity through information surfacing (graph view, contextualized backlinks) and context switching (animations, display filters).

This example offers us some ground to discuss document design in relation with documentarity. By this word, we refer to a quantifiable quality of documentary things: in French, documentarity is defined as “ce qui fait document”, which does not mean “what makes a document” but “what feels like a document”Perret et Le Deuff, « Documentarité et données, instrumentation d’un concept », 2019.
. The way we perceive documentarity is subjective, situational and multi-factorial, shaped by our “horizons of expectation”“Horizons of expectation” (German: Erwartungshorizont) was used in literary theories of reception, most notably by Jauss, « Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory », 1970. This is in the same neighborhood as the concept of “literarity” (German: literaturnost; French: littérarité) used by Jakobson, Huit questions de poétique, 1977, and which influenced the French meaning of documentarity.
, especially previous experience of genre-based rules; in the case of documents, this involves closure, portability, structure, metadata, linearity and more.

Designing documents implies playing with documentarity, potentially setting new horizons of expectation. This is especially the case for document graphs, which are document-program hybrids. To use a relevant comparison, multi-page static websites or single-page web applications are not usually called documents, but data science notebooks are often called “computational documents”Computational documents (also called notebooks) are texts containing code and its output, which the reader can modify by editing the code. They are used mostly in data science.
; the decisive factor here is linearity, which compounds the effect of the other factors that increase documentarity (such as structure and metadata). Cosma’s cosmoscopes are more portable than notebooks but they are non-linear and have no obvious starting point; so their documentarity is arguably lower and the design task could be viewed as to increase it. But if we now consider a cosmoscope as a docemeLund, « Documentation in a complementary perspective », 2004 ; Lund, « Building a discipline, creating a profession », 2007.
, meaning something than can be either a standalone document or a fragment embedded in another document, then the challenge would be to enable both the increase and decrease of documentarity depending on the needs.

At the heart of document graphs is linking. This is a complex operation, the design of which requires detailed conceptualization. Here, document theory and knowledge organization offer useful tools (emphasized with italics in the following sentences). Linking can be defined as a multi-purpose knowledge organization process: it can be used to classify, index, give attribution and compose ideas. Linking can be made during writing, in which case it belongs to textualization, or after, in which case it belongs to documentarization. Linking belongs to external documentarization from the perspective of individual records but internal documentarization from the perspective of the document graph. And linking enables composition because it builds the graph, but also fragmentation because it provides the basis for extracting link contexts. This analysis provides important design guidance: it emphasizes the need for organization and ideation features (such as link types and link suggestions) rather than features based on graph theory (such as clustering or traversal).

This exploratory work suggests that document design and document theory should be associated more often. They benefit each other: theory orients action, while practice strengthens concepts. In particular, we believe documentarity can be a bridge between the two fields, with diagrams such as fig. 1 to start actionable discussions.

Figure 1 – A relational model for document design based on document theory


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