Can your CMS do different layouts?

Chris Heisel says news Web sites ought to change the design of their content area regularly, rather than having the same look every day:

The system that most newspapers use for updating their sites involves pushing a new headline, blurb and maybe a photo to the front page.

This would be the print equivalent of running every story in the same position as it was the day before, and just putting new headlines and new photos on the page.

Sites need to change their visuals so visitors know that the site has been updated, Heisel argues, citing an E-Media Tidbits post saying readers get bored of “sameness.” And that doesn’t just mean new photos, that means switching to a different layout and changing the sizes and shapes and positions of stories and photos. This is what I tried to do back at my college paper’s online edition: compare the Web front pages for Feb. 14, 2002, March 28, 2002 and April 18, 2002.

A few days ago I complained that many sites did not change their layout for a big story, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. I theorized that rigid content management systems were behind some Web sites’ ordinary look and feel on a news day that was anything but. Heisel also believes content management systems are one reason most news sites don’t change their design on a daily basis — or preferably several times a day.

I agree with Heisel that replacing those dumb content management systems with ones that support many different front page designs — or better yet, working with raw HTML for maximum flexibility — will increase reader interest in news sites. That’s a very good reason to make your front page more fluid on 364 days of the year, just in case you weren’t convinced of the need to use a banner headline the day the space shuttle disintegrated.

Comment by Adrian, posted February 17, 2003, 9:47 am

How do you balance flexible layouts with the tendency for users to scan Web pages habitually, expecting stories in the same place?

Comment by kpaul, posted February 17, 2003, 7:27 pm

I kinda like the idea of changing the homepage on a day to day basis. Say, on Friday cover entertainment and 'stuff to do' more prominently and on Mondays play up the big feature stories from Sunday (for the people who only surf at work...)

Doing this, you could let readers know what to expect on certain days while still not making it the 'same' everyday.

At some point the 'industry' needs to take the web as seriously as it does print. When they do, maybe they'll invest on some real innovation for CMS systems. Until then, expect run-of-the-mill turnkey solutions heavily molded (moldy?) in certain forms/designs.

The problem with working raw HTML is that you have to devote manhours to it - something a lot of media companies are loathe to do at the moment. (Personally, I think it's because of the looming lessening of cross ownership laws - ie a media feeding frenzy later this year...) While I don't agree with the strategy, people tell me it's called 'reality' ;)

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted February 17, 2003, 8:55 pm

Adrian, that’s a very good point to bring up about scanning. On the other hand, I think readers scan print edition front pages, too, before deciding what to read, and no one complains about stories and photos being shifted around from day to day in print.

But maybe the “cognitive burden” factor that you’ve identified trumps the “boringness” factor online. I know I generally spend several minutes with a front page in print (because I begin reading stories on the page) whereas an online front page might only get several seconds of my attention. And you’re right, I have trained myself to look for stories on the right side of and the left side of, because of where those sites put their photos. The New York Times did change the position of their photo for about a week recently, though, and that didn’t confuse me too much.

Here’s one potential compromise: What if sites had a consistent “story area” and “photo area” but allowed for more variation within those spaces? Rather than just containing a single vertical photo, for example, the photo area could also allow two horizontal photos. The story area would need to allow for several different headline sizes including banner headlines, grouping of related articles, identification of stories as “special reports,” as well as the use of one or two smaller photos to go with specific stories.

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted February 17, 2003, 9:14 pm

Kpaul, I was originally only thinking of varying the design to swap different pieces of content in and out, but you have an interesting idea there for swapping different types of content in and out as well. Especially if you’re talking about putting entertainment news up prominently over the weekend or in the evening or something, there would definitely need to be some design elements that clearly convey the difference between a breaking international story and a concert preview.

Barry Parr has a good summary of what types of content are accessed at different times and on different days. I’ve heard some talk recently of changing around news site front pages to reflect that.

Comment by Marco Jacoby, posted February 18, 2003, 3:29 am

Hallo Nathan,
I read your article in Dr. Web`s Magazine.
On the site you see my ideas concerning this.
Best wishes for the future,
smiley by MaJa

Comment by Sigrid, posted February 18, 2003, 3:45 am

Hallo Nathan,

I think it is worth while remembering why CMS was developed, the idea was to offer a possibilty of filling in content without he CI of a Company. That was in my opinion one of the reasons to develope CMS. And therefore it does not make sense to me critizising this wanted effect. If it is meant to be another area of CMS some sort of 'evolution' this would be a good idea, but to use exactly the reason for developing it does not make sense to me.

I do appologize for my bad English, but im German and not in practice of speaking and writing.

best wishes

Comment by [comment removed], posted February 18, 2003, 4:18 am

[comment removed]

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted February 18, 2003, 4:19 am

Sigrid, outside of the newspaper industry I think you’re right that “filling in content” is a task that can fall to non-designers. But my opinion is that the staff of news Web sites need to have the tools (and the training) to design a front page, not just throw it together. You’re also right that it’s foolish to criticize a content management system for operating exactly as planned — I’m taking issue with the plans themselves, not the programming. As kpaul alluded to, sometimes it seems to be business decisions that get in the way of the journalism.

Comment by thomas, posted February 18, 2003, 4:31 am

cms were not only developed for keeping up with the CI of a company. another reason was to make the process of content-creation simplier - in a way it's what blogs are for today for smaller pages.
so going back to coding raw html cannot be the solution.

but changing the style of a big entrypage depending on some event (there are: planned events - e.g. olympics, elections; and unplanned catastrophes - e.g. columbia; ...) is an important issue.
cms are to blame, but there are ways to overcome their deficits without going back to coding html (once more mixing up content with structure and design).

Comment by Christoph Schumacher, posted February 18, 2003, 4:47 am

Everybody talks about Content Management, but most of the CM-systems also try to manage the structure. Structure Management is much more complicated then Content Management. If a client ask a specific type of structure on a website, individual programming is necessary. This is the moment, where most of the CM-System fail. Some few CM-Systems have the ability off managing stucture. But most of them are so complicated to handle, that we have to ask ourselves, wether it is not easier to learn the programming language itself...

Comment by Sasa Velickovic (, posted February 18, 2003, 7:24 am

While it is true that some layouts get boring with the time, changing Layout regularly is for sure going to confuse the hell out of most visitors. As a webdesigner and webprogrammer of CM-Systems myself I like to play around on websites, but I think that is not the case with most of the actual customers of a site. When I go to the big news sites I go there with getting my information as quick as possible and not to play a round with some new feature. Worse I should not have to learn the navigation everytime I go back to a site.

I think the solution to this would simply be for the CMS to only spit out the markup that is really needed and let the *CSS* do the rest. Not beeing able to change layouts imho has really nothing to do with CM-Systems.

All the best

Comment by Keith, posted February 18, 2003, 6:05 pm

This is a very interesting discussion and I don't think this issue is limited to "news" sites. I can't help but thing how this relates to an Intranet site, where you may have many different types of content, news included. I know that for the CMS I use down at my day job, there would need to be HTML manipulation to achieve this so in effect either the Web team would have to maintain it or train the content owners. Maybe some sort of content template would solve the problem, but I can't help but think it might be more trouble than it's worth.

What about blogs? Could they benefit from this as well? Hmm... In any event it's interesting to think about.

Comment by Alexander, posted February 19, 2003, 2:12 am

I suggest to have a look at typo3 ( This Content Management Framework is the most flexible application for content management i've ever seen. Check it out :-)

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted February 19, 2003, 5:04 am

Sasa, you have a great point about using CSS to provide all of the site’s design. That separation of design from content has many benefits to news sites, as my friend Adrian Holovaty has repeatedly pointed out. And if the CMS we use at work could spit out plain content ready to be styled with CSS, you’re absolutely right — I’d quit complaining. Perhaps there is hope for this taking off in the news business eventually, as Adrian just reported on’s new CSS-driven and almost tableless design.

Comment by Marco, posted February 19, 2003, 8:22 am

Shure. A CMS should never stop any layout- or designideas.

Here are some examples for using the, written by myself:


Comment by ThM - Thierry MADILLO, posted February 23, 2003, 2:34 pm

Very interesting!
The separation of the content ("contenu") and the look /design("contenant") have a recent evolution on the Net with the use of CMS tools. I think that it is more simple today to have a good design, but there is more a long work to adapt the good design for the content (CSS is one way) ...

I do appologize for my bad English and for most french articles on


Comment by Thomas C., posted August 19, 2003, 4:02 am

Found this blog recently.

Maybe I miss the point.

As a matter of course a CMS should enable quick changes in layout, and should be based on CSS, as was pointed out here.

But does it really make sense to change layouts say every day? Or let each editor decide what color he likes today?

If you go for corporate identity or similar, your web design should be constant and recognizable, IMHO.

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted August 19, 2003, 5:58 am

Thomas C., for most kinds of Web sites I agree with you. However, what I’m interested in here are online news sites, which generally do rotate content every day or multiple times per day. Some pieces of content need to be displayed in slightly different ways than others. Yes, the few interchangeable designs a site would come up with would be consistent and recognizable. But that doesn’t mean the “corporate identity” of a news site should require always using a horizontal photo or always using a vertical photo. Gratuitously changing design just to make existing content look new is unfriendly to the user, but changing the design to show off your new content most effectively is not. I’m not advocating changing colors and navigation all the time — that would be horrible — but I am advocating the ability to present two stories and two photos one day and three stories and one photo the next.

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