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WYSIWYG (pronounced "wizzy-wig" or "wuzzy-wig") is an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, and is used in computing to describe a seamlessness between the appearance of edited content and final product. Today this is expected for word processors but in other situations, like web (HTML) authoring, this is not always the case.



  • A description of a user interface that allows the user to view the end result while the document or graphic character is being created.
    For example, a user can see on screen how a document will look when printed.
  • Allows the user to concentrate entirely on how the content should appear.
  • Also refers to the ability of modifying the layout of a document without having to type (and remember) names of layout commands.
  • Also used to describe specifically a web-page creation program in which the user creates the webpage visually, while the program generates the HTML for it. Often users can also edit this HTML if they so desire.

Most programs are not truly WYSIWYG since printing and page formatting are still hidden from view. Sometimes programs deliberately deviate from a true WYSIWYG view for convenience, for example by showing visual guides or comments that will not appear on the printed page.

Is WYSIWYG Really Useful?

WYSIWYG is becoming increasingly difficult to realise. This is partly because we often want to use the same content in different environments. To reuse content in a WYSIWYG environment usually means one has to re-edit the layout for each publication. Furthermore, using the same tool for content editing and layout means that the writer of the content must also play the role of layout designer. Two skills that are rarely present in any one individual.

Where WYSIWYG is useful is in single use documents that are unlikely to be further processed in any way, perhaps for a quick, informal letter to a friend. However, in the business environment it is unusual to create content that will not need to be further processed. For further discussion about the history of WYSIWYG and a discussion of its strengths and weakness see What has WYSIWYG done to us? (http://www.ideography.co.uk/library/seybold/WYSIWYG.html), first published in 1996. The author recognises how we were seduced by WYSIWYG's illusion of control and how we lowered our expectations and typographic standards and became deeply confused about who in publishing is supposed to do what.

He goes on to conclude that good typography requires a lot more than good-quality typefaces. It also requires improved composition algorithms within publishing software -- both for paper and for the Web.

It is interesting to read this paper today, nearly ten years later. The majority of issues and problems identified in that paper are still of great concern. In fact, with the growth of the Web Publishing and "user level" tools for "easy web publishing" the issues raised within become even more important.

Historical notes

  • The phrase was originated by Jonathan Seybold and popularized at Xerox PARC during the late 1970s when the first WYSIWYG editor, Bravo was created on the Alto. The Alto monitor (72 pixels per inch) was designed so that one full page of text could be seen and then printed on the first laser printers. When the text was laid out on the screen 72 PPI font metric files were used, but when printed 300 PPI files were used — thus one would occasionally find characters and words slightly off, a problem that continues to this day. (72 PPI came from the standard of 72 "points" per inch used in the commercial printing industry.)
  • Seybold and the researchers at PARC were simply reappropriating a popular catch phrase of the time originated by "Geraldine", a character on The Flip Wilson Show, (1970-1974). In addition to "What you see is what you get!", this character also popularized "The Devil made me do it!"
  • The Apple Macintosh system was originally designed so that the screen resolution and the resolution of the dot-matrix printers sold by Apple were easily scaled: 72 PPI for the screen and 144 DPI for the printers. Thus, the on-screen output of programs such as MacWrite and MacPaint were easily translated to the printer output and allowed WYSIWYG. With the introduction of laser printers, resolutions deviated from even multiples of the screen resolution, making WYSIWYG harder to achieve.
  • Charles Simonyi, the PARC researcher responsible for Bravo, joined Microsoft in 1981 to start development of application programs at Microsoft. Hence, Bravo can be seen as the direct ancestor of Microsoft Word.

Related acronyms

(in order of increasing obscurity)

What You See Is What I See (used in context of distant multi-users applications, e.g. CSCW)
What You See Is What You Asked For (in reference to programs such as those used for manual typesetting such as TeX or troff, that what is retrieved from the system is what the user specified - in essence, a statement of GIGO)
What You See Is All You Get (used by computer programmers who point out that a style of "heading" that refers to a specification of "Helvetica 15 bold" provides more useful information than a style of "Helvetica 15 bold" every time a heading is used)
What You See Is Almost What You Get (most text editing programs)
What You See Is What You Mean (You see what best conveys the message)
What You See Is More Or Less What You Get (another way of stating WYSIAWYG)
What You Get Is No Surprise - Weaker version of WYSIAWYG and WYSIMOLWYG
What You Think You See Is What You Think You Get ("whit-iss-ee-whit-ig") (when a program claims to be WYSIWYG but isn't)
What You Cache is What You Get ("wyciwyg://" turns up occasionally in the address bar of Gecko-based Web browsers like Mozilla Firefox when the browser is retrieving cached information) -or - What You Create Is What You Get -or- What You Click Is What You Get
What You Print is What You Fax, briefly popular in the early days of fax modems, to distinguish software that presented the fax modem to the OS via a printer driver and thus fax-enabled any program capable of printing
What You Get Is What You Get (an alternative approach to document formatting using markup languages, e.g. HTML, to define content and trusting the layout software to make it pretty enough)
What You Get Is What You're Given And It's No Use Complaining

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