Corporate Styles and Templates

Why use templates and styles

Styles and templates are the tools required to have an easy and consistent handling of the corporate identity and design in the documents representing the overall image to the public. They also help to create well-structured documents that are much better accessible to people with a disability. Using named styles in your document provides the foundation of the document structure which is used by access technology to convey meaning to the user.

Office applications by default include some standard templates containing visually appealing and accessible styles, but many organisations use custom templates with their own corporate styles in line with their overall visual identity. Styles and templates are typically crafted by skilled company designers and data experts. Freed from “becoming a designer” users are better able to focus on content rather than on appearances. Applying styles instead of direct formatting of content is considered a best practice. Even if users have a need to custom design a specific document, it is still recommended to create and apply styles over manual direct formatting.

What is a template?

A template is a special type of document that can be used as a model for users to create documents with a specific look and feel. A template can contain anything a normal document can contain, including predefined content such as a preamble, a header or footer with the title of a document, a company logo, or an address block at the top of a letter. All new documents based on the template inherit the styles and assets used in it, including embedded fonts and images used in for instance a page backgrounds.

What is a style?

A style is a bundle of formatting properties that can be applied on a specific document element (for instance a paragraph, cell, bullet list or footnote) or a part thereof. During the writing of a text the user can apply a style with a key combination or through a menu option. Many applications also have a graphical “Format Painter” to clone styles and apply them throughout the document, which is often visualised as a paint brush.

Styles can be used to indicate many characteristics of an element besides the type face and font sizes you use. It contains almost the entire repertoire of design characteristics such as where elements are placed and what the context should look like (for instance margins, padding, borders, backgrounds), enforce page breaks before and after an instance of a certain style, set a specific language for the element involved or determine if a certain type of numbering needs to be applied.

ODF applications typically comes with a set of meaningful predefined styles, such as “Heading 1”, “Title” or “Foot note”. Note that creating an instance of a style goes beyond aesthetic purposes, but that using styles also is used to add hierarchy and structure to the document. Using styles is essential to create accessible documents, because hierarchy is used to be able to navigate through a document. A sight-impaired user may override style settings. Styles are in fact useful for many other purposes. For instance, if you need a table of contents in your documents, you can save yourself a lot of time by automatically generating it from the headings of your document. Using named styles also allows people to convert documents to for instance DAISY audio content in an automated way.

A style can be aligned with a follow up style, for instance “Heading 1” will be usually automatically be followed by a style called “Content Body”, “Default” or “Normal”. Companies can add their own styles with special meaning to a template.

Example: The OASIS specification of the ODF file format has text styles similar to “variable name” and “variable default value”, which allow the automated extraction of the values from the document.

Managing templates

An organisation is likely to have many templates to cater for different types of output, most of which are derived versions of a much smaller set of root templates. Within governments, it is often even the case that departments and agencies have document templates that are part of an even large overall government style. This means that the same styles are used across many different government bodies in many different templates.

Think ahead, and centralise the maintenance of templates and the styles included to avoid redundant work and significantly raises their quality. When these root templates need to change due to for instance an update to the corporate design or because of some technical requirement, all the templates that were derived from them need to be changed throughout all the deployed locations as well.

There are a number of standard standalone tools available for template management. Other tools are integrated with document lifecycle management tools or midoffice application. Because of its technical design based on XML, OpenDocument Format templates are much easier to generate than the previous generation of documents.

When the Netherlands national government adopted a new corporate style (the ‘Rijkshuisstijl‘), it deployed an open source online template generator that allows automatic creation of custom ODF templates based on an approved set of variants each ministry or agency could choose from. All customisations are stored, and when changes in the root templates occur, the new custom templates for each organisation can be automatically generated.

Beyond static content

It is often necessary to insert more than static content in a template. There are a number of ways you can do this with ODF applications. The most common scenario is using variables, which suffices for many use cases. But you can also use ODF’s form functionality or enhance your workflow functionality through a preprocessor or a plugin. Previously some organisations used embedded macro’s, but this is currently not considered a good practice.

Simple use cases

When your users start to work with a template, the templates you provide can be created so that they automatically insert or hide specific information depending on the context. The information these can use could be simple facts such as a page number, the amount of pages in a document or the current date. Templates can also reference user defined variables that draw information from the metadata of the document or some other source the application is aware of. Variables can be displayed in a document using so called variable fields, but also be used as conditionals.

Using rich form functionality built into the standard

If a degree of interaction with your users is necessary, you are quickly moving into the domain of form functionality. Form support in ODF is built on top of a powerful W3C standard called XForms, which allows rich types of interaction.

Enhancing functionality through plugins

The city of Munich created an open-source plugin for its preferred office suite with enhanced template, form, and autotext functionality. It can construct templates on the fly from multiple files (e.g. letterhead, footer, and body text) and will fill in personal and organizational data from various databases such as a corporate directory using standards like LDAP. An extra form GUI presents fields in an easily navigable manner and offers plausibility checks and computed values to ease filling in the form. Chainable printing functions allow various transformations during print and custom dialogs.

Note: Munich made the WollMux plugin available as open source, licensed under the European Union Public Licence.

Best practices

  • Users have to be taught to work with templates and styles. It is not something that the majority of users does automatically.
  • The creation of styles and templates should be done having interoperability of ODF in mind. Footnotes and Frames were identified as pitfalls for new template creators.
  • Use a validator to make sure that template documents are fully conformant to the ODF specification. A document designer can make mistakes as well, and non-conformant documents may at some point in the future start to misbehave. Future implementations may not be as forgiving as they are now.
  • Ask the designers to test your templates and test documents produced from them in the key applications the people your users send documents to work with. The Officeshots.org tool can be used for this purpose as well.
  • Make sure that your designers take accessibility into account.
  • If you use specific fonts in your corporate style that are not available on every platform, embedding these fonts into your templates will help in reaching visual consistency. Note that there might be a small increase in file size, but the portability and durability of your content is likely worth it. There is separate chapter on font embedding you might wish to consult.

Technical background information

How to recognise a template document

It is easy to recognise ODF templates apart from regular documents, because they actually have their own file extensions and mime types. The recommended filename extension begins with “.ot” (interpretable as short for “OpenDocument template”), with the last letter indicating what kind of template. There are eight different template types : for texts, spreadsheets, presentations, formulas, graphics, charts, images and HTML output.

Tips for template usage

When you’ve used a template to create some new document, an application can link to the template (or a specific version of that template) in a special way inside the document metadata. That could for instance allow you to later reapply a new version of that template automatically when the corporate style is updated.

In case you have a print flow based on a number of different templates that sometimes vary, you may want to insert the name of the template in the visible text of a document, for instance in a footer.