The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an open standard of creating, structuring, and distributing content. At its essence, it is a methodology of writing basic building blocks of content that can be organized and reused easily across platforms. Content is broken down into self-contained topics, arranged in content maps, and published to multiple media outlets. Imagine a product manual with content that could change depending on the reader, device, or product model. This guide will walk you through the basic of DITA and it’s benefits.

History and Definition

DITA is XML-based, which stands for eXtensible Markup Language. XML is a markup language that defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format which is both human-readable and machine-readable.1
Many people new to DITA ask, “Why the ‘Darwin’ in ‘Darwin Information Typing Architecture?'” As part of his theory of natural selection, the naturalist Charles Darwin noted that plants and animals inherit traits from their parents. Likewise, many elements in DITA inherit attributes from parent elements. Art reflects nature. 2
In 2001, IBM created DITA to replace their clunky and difficult IBMDoc format. Realizing the benefits of standardization for the technical writing industry, IBM gave DITA to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). In 2005, OASIS publicly released DITA. Since then, the adoption of DITA has grown to expand beyond technical software companies to include hardware manufacturers, semi-conductors, medical devices, and elearning to name a few.
The reason DITA has been able to spread across industries is due to it being an open standard. “An open standard is a published standard that is possessed by noone and used by all.”4 Imagine how different the internet would be if HTML had not been open to the public.

Content Typing

Content Typing breaks down content into defined categories such as topics, allowing for effective reuse and searchability. Think of a book that is broken down into chapters. It would be very difficult to find, extract, and reuse content if the only division were the chapter titles. If you were looking for a part list of toaster components, you would need to search through the whole chapter on toasters to find it. Using content typing, you can break the chapter down into categories like: instructions, descriptions, examples, concepts, and references. Chunking content makes searching for content much easier, so you can quickly find that toaster part reference list.
Popular DITA content types include: topics, concepts, tasks, and references. Going from most broad usage to narrow: topics are for any general information, concepts are for theoretical explanations, tasks are for procedures, and references are for detailed properties.


There are many benefits to using DITA to it’s fullest extent. Below is a breakdown of the benefits from both from a business and technical standpoint.
Business Management benefits focuses on the effectiveness, costs, and time spent using DITA.

Business Problems Solutions
Content creation is expensive and labor intensive. DITA’s standard of topic based authoring makes it easy to reuse content already in place, cutting down on time and cost.
Updating Having multiple product versions or lines that are out dated or not consistently updated. DITA allows for authors to make a change once and have it updated in all relevant documents, reducing outdated files and monotonous labor.
Translation Localizing content to specific countries or regions is costly. DITA makes localization cheaper by selectively translating content that you need and not what you already have, significantly reducing translation costs.
Publishing Existing content is clunky and hard to distribute well across platforms. DITA content can be published to many different formats and devices reducing cost of publication.
Technical benefits focuses on the ease of use, features, and complexity.

Technical Problems Solution
Reuse Copying and pasting content allows for errors and is time consuming. DITA eliminates copying and pasting mistakes and provides a methodology to effectively repurpose content.
Formatting Exporting and importing file types causes formatting errors and is time consuming. DITA open standard makes publishing consistent across multiple formats.
Collaboration Having multiple versions of documentation that editors need to ensure are the correct files. DITA allows for edits, comments, and reviews to be made to a single source so everyone’s on the same page.
Tags Coding in other standards can be complex with hundreds of tags and beyond the capacity of most writers. DITA uses only 200 easy to understand tags and allows for specialized element tags.


Topics are the most general content category. The content within this category should focus on a single subject that can stand alone as a self-contained section. Topic based authoring places emphasis on a minimalist approach; give only the relevant information and nothing else. Constraining topics like this allows for reuse of topics across multiple areas.
Here is an example for using a topic for a toaster.
Title: Buying A Toaster.
Short Description: Considerations when buying a toaster.
Body: Something as simple as buying a toaster has become complex process of adding up value and comparing costs. There are many factors to account for: Toasting speed, timing control, bagel settings, number of slots, does it do designs, can it fling toast with precision to a plate, and can it make coffee with eggs at the same time.
Related Links: or


One of the major advantages of DITA is the ability to reuse content. Organizing content into specific topic-based categories makes reusing content much easier. For example, if there is a standard disclaimer or warning that is used in all product manuals, the topic would be written once and reused in other documents.
The level of reuse can become very granule, where paragraphs, sentences, or even individual lines are parsed and reused across topics. This is made possible because DITA requires each topic-based content piece to be only on one subject, informative enough to be self-sufficient, and unreliant of context that surrounds it.
There is a big difference between reuse and coping/pasting. With copying and pasting content, there are duplicate files with the same information. When the information is updated in one, the changes are not reflected in the other files. Reuse, on the other hand, allows for just one file to be referenced when needed. Any changes made to this file will be reflected across all content.
For an example of reuse, the Toaster Classic’s Instructions (a DITA task) is being reused for the Lightning Toaster Manual.


Tasks focus on procedures; listing specific steps to achieve an desired outcome. There is a standard structure for tasks that eases the collaboration for multiple authors. The basic structure goes as follows:
  1. Title: Name of task.
  2. Pre-requisite: Prior to the task, what the reader needs to know.
  3. Task steps: Series of instruction.
  4. Results: Outcome of completing the task’s steps.
  5. Post-requisite: After completion, what the reader needs to know.
All or just some of the structure can be used when establishing a content standard. Having a title, pre-requisite and result could be mandatory but post-requisites could be optional. There are many more elements that can be added to a task.
An example of how to use the toaster in a task:
Instructions on how to make toast.
Steps to make toasts.
You will need: Sliced bread, the toaster, an outlet, and butter.
Task Steps
  1. Plug toaster plug into outlet (Fig. 1).
  2. Insert sliced bread into bread holes located at the top of the toaster.
  3. Adjust the timer for how long you want to cook the toast.
  4. Press the lever down (Fig. 2)
  5. When toast pops up take out of toaster and place on a plate (Fig. 3).
  6. Use desired spread ontop of toast (Fig. 4).
You now have tasty toast.
Go ahead and eat it before it gets cold.


Concepts are used for abstract descriptions of topics and conveying ideas. “Often, a concept is an extended definition of a major abstraction such asa process or function.”3 At its essence, concepts answer “What is…” The difference between topics and concepts is small but distinct. Topics can be used for anything but concepts should be used for just high level explanatory content.
An example of a concept for a toaster:
The ToasterClassicTM is the one-of-a-kind, classic, breakfast machine you wanted since you were old enough to eat solid food. Have perfect slices of delight with your favorite jam or butter. Easily achieve exquisitely toasted bagels with a push of a button.


Maps are used to link, sort, and order content types. Types of content could have information about specific product, audiences, and purposes. Maps are utilized to make sure that the right content type goes to the right audience for the right reason.
Below we have two models of toasters, the ClassicTM and LightningTM. The left column is all the content types we have related to toasters. For each toaster models, only the relevant information is included in the map so the audience does not need to wade through unrelated content.


Refrences are a very focused class and is used for placing product dimentions, equipment lists, parts lists, required tools, and the functions of a product or service.
Example of a Toaster Part Map.
Example of Toaster Part List.

Toster Dimentions:
Capacity 1 or 2 slices
Output per hour 30 slices
Loading (kW) 2.2
Dimensions (cm) 36 x 21 x 22
Weight (kg) 4.25
Slot width 28mm
Materials Cast aluminium ends, stainless steel body


Content Management Systems (CMS) are programs that can store, organize, author, review, and publish content.
While DITA offers many features, it is typically paired with a CMS that allows content managers to easily work on the content without the knowledge of writing code. There are a few different types of Management systems, each with a different angle on content management. An easy way of thinking about CMS’s is associating them with transportation. A sailboat, a luxury cruse ship, and a submarine are all capable of transportation but you wouldn’t use a nuclear powered submarine to cross a river.
Here are a few types of CMS’s and the distinction between them.
Enterprise Management Systems (EMS): Are a formalized way of storing and managing content at a corporation level. This includes strategies, tools, and methodologies within a given organization.
Component Content Management Systems (CCMS): Are structured ways of organizing, storing, and manipulating content components. These systems provide granular level control of the content within documents for topic level management.
Learning Management Systems (LMS): Are focused on the administration, documentation, tracking, training and delivery of educational materials.
Document Management Systems (DMS): A file storage system to collect, access, and mange documents.
Electronic Document and Records Management Systems (EDRMS): Stores, controls, and enforces processes around electronic records such as email, text messages, and other digital information deemed valuable.

Output Formats

One of the advantages to using a standard like DITA is the ability to publish in various output formats. People consume information with increasingly varied devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers. The demand for flexible and responsive content is pushing companies to make the change to responsive content.
As DITA use semantic tagging that can be customized to style the content subjectively, allowing for greater control over individual elements.
  • <Title> Toaster
    • <Prerequisite> To start using your toaster, you will need to do the following:
    • <Task> Using the toaster
      • <Step> Set toaster away from anything flammable.
      • <Step> Plug toaster in to electrical socket.
When exported to a format that has no reference to the semantic tag like <Step>, it can convert into the global standard <list item>. This is the Darwin in DITA, the flexibility of any tags to revert back to its “predecessors”
  • <Header> Toaster
    • <Body> To start using your toaster, you will need to do the following:
      • <Paragraph> Using the toaster
        • <Unorderd list>
          • <List item> Set toaster away from anything flammable.
          • <List item> Plug toaster in to electrical socket.
The output format dictates the final look and feel of documents. There are DITA publishing engine that provide this conversion that are becoming common in the industry. Considering the flexibility of topics and maps, outputs can be very versatile as well.

References and resources

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