Review of the book Structured Documents

In this post I will give a review of each essay in the book Structured Documents, edited by J. Andre, R. Furuta & V. Quint. This collection of essays gives an overview of research into structured documents and declarative formats. The book is considered by many to be a seminal work on structuring documents. And even though it predates XML, it still has a very close relationship to structuring documents using XML. I am hoping that content of this book will help validate ideas I have about how to structure documents, particularly as they relate to my work on a Declarative Format for User Interfaces and Applications, and also provide new insights into effective ways of structuring documents. The essays in the book range in topics from the history of electronic publishing, theoretical foundations of structured documents, approaches to use when representing structured documents, to the semantic and visual semiotic structures of text. Sounds like my kind of book… 🙂

This will be an ongoing entry as I make my way through the book.

“Semantic Structures of Text”, by Pat Norrish (p. 143-60).
This chapter presents a small survey of the visual semantic structures of text (as they relate to visual formatting of print documents). It discusses semiotic patterns in general printed text production that readers usually identify as a semiotic unit (such as a paragraph or a table) and stylistic conventions used by authors to ensure readers understand these semantic units as expected. From a design perspective, the chapter is overly simplistic lacking any real in-depth analysis of design decisions (but at least acknowledges the design process and different intentions that an author might have had when choosing a style for a particular part of a document).
Norrish introduces an interesting diagram, where he shows that the presentation is a factor of text structure, common stylistic conventions (as they relate to the users of the text and the context in which used will access the text, as well as the authors intended purpose of the text), and other factors like monetary costs, and the skill of the typesetter (which in our case includes both the auhor, their tools, and the limitations of the User Agent to represent the authors intentions).
Apart from that, the chapter glosses over different abstractions of document types (broadsheet, folded, codex, journal articles, and tables from journals).

To conclude, the essay is interesting in as far as it demonstrates that a semiotic analysis of stylistic structures of visual layouts are intrinsic in understanding the underlying semantic structures of visual designs (as I argued in my honours thesis). However, the essay fails to provide or acknowledge any sophisticated design language to back up its analysis. And although at a base level it reaches similar conclusions as one would if they used the language of visual design to analyse text, it is another example of a paper that fails to acknowledge the long history and tradition of print making and the design theories that underpin the design discipline.

2 thoughts on “Review of the book Structured Documents”

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