INFORMATION DESIGN PROCESSES: DEVELOPING ACCESSIBLE AND UNDERSTANDABLE INFORMATION
Aren't all graphic design projects very similar? I mean the ways in which graphic designers solve problems, or the ways in which designers change situtions into preferred ones?
usually goes as follows. A client wants to present information in a
format that attracts the attention of people and that is memorable.
This client approaches a designer with a clear vision of the aims and a
rough idea of the end result. In a first meeting, the format - such as
a poster, a brochure, a book, a logo, a visual identity, or a website -
is discussed. The client provides the information contents and the
design process can start. During this process, a few promising ideas
are suggested, developed, visualized and presented in a way that the
final results can be examined by the client. This is repeated a few
times, modifications are made and the final design is prepared for
production. A project finishes as soon as a website is uploaded onto a
server, or the files are send to the printer. The invoice is sent, and
the next project demands our attention. But is it really this simple?
For some graphic design projects the above process description might have been sufficient, but it probably has always been an over-simplification. For example: Christophe Plantin 'designed' and printed a bible in 1566 for King Philips II: the Biblia Regia. This bible contains texts in 5 languages and consists of 8 luxurious volumes. It was designed in such a way that all 5 languages appear on each double-page spread, and that at the end of the chapter all languages finish on the same line (Voet & Grisolle, 1980). This is not an easy copyfitting task, and it would still require a fair amount of work with the aid of current dtp-software programmes. This was a very complex project were the client was a single person, the texts were known and could not be modified, and the format could not be anything else. These last three points are common in many current graphic design projects.
In information design projects, this is
often not the case. The clients are frequentely diverse groups of
people, the contents still need to be written and the formats can vary.
It is very likely that these kinds of projects require several
additional steps on top of the simplified process description. The
'ideal' information design process has been described by for example
Patricia Wright (1988) and Karen Schriver (1997). A practical way is to
divide this process in three phases: 'benchmarking', 'developing and
testing', and 'implementing and monitoring' (Sless, 2001).
Step 1. Benchmarking
In this first phase all the relevant features of an existing situation are collected, described and analysed. At least four inventories need to be made: the current use, the stakeholders, the existing development process and external influences. This is traditionally described as the analysis of a design-project.
To improve the end-result, it is
essential to investigate how people handle specific documents at the
moment. People do have a fairly precise ideas about the use of types of
documents - or genres - such as timetables or manuals. We use these
documents in a particular way and in a particular situation. It is
necessary to observe and consider these conventions.
It is also
necessary to formulate relevant criteria. Apart from being correct,
complete and up-to-date, it is possible to use six other criteria to
evaluate the quality of a document (Sless, 2001). These are that people
should easily find the information they want (1), in an efficient way
(2) and the information should also look good (3). On top of that, it
must be clear that the information respects them. The tone should not
be paternalizing or make people feel uncomfortable or intimidated (4).
Information should also be physically appropriate: it should be easy to
handle and to look at (5). And the final criteria is that a document
should be socially appropriate (6), which means that the use of the
information should not embarrass the reader. Most obvious signs that
existing documents are not optimal are handwritten notes that are stuck
to signage, copiers, or walls.
A second inventory needs to find
out who is currently involved. All stakeholders need to be approached
to make sure that a change can be supported - or at least not be
sabotaged - by people who perceive a document as their own. It is
surprising how many 'solutions' are not implemented because some
stakeholders were not involved from the beginning, and are therefore
subsequently not convinced of the necessity of a change. Very often,
documents that have a large impact on people are produced by the
departments that have a low esteem, rank and budget within an
organization. Examples are the product-repair department, the
form-writers, the people who work on the phones in call-centres, and
the people who put laws into practice. However, these 'stakeholders'
frequently know exactly what is needed and are very valuable sources of
information for advice about the development of new documents.
third important inventory is a process description about the
development process. Any solution must fit into current working
practice. It should preferably be less work, with existing technology
and the use of currrent suppliers. And the fourth inventory that is
necessary consists of a collection of all external influences, such as
laws, regulations, international standards and so on.
inventories lead to a clear description of a situation with measurable
criteria, and clear aims. They provide a starting point to discuss the
real problem with the commissioner. Skipping one of these might prove
to be very costly afterwards.
Step 2. Developing and testing
Based on the results of the four inventories, it is now possible to start developing solutions. This might involve several potential designs or even different formats. Of course, while making the inventories, some solutions become evident already. Step 1 partly overlaps step 2.
All the time, all decisions are taken from a user perspective. This approach is necessary for both large-scale design decisions - such as for a complete website, a collection of all forms for a government or an airport signage system - as well as for small scale decions. Examples are the decisions whether it would be helpful to add full stops between the words and the pagenumbers in an index, the subdivision of the bars in a bar-graph, or the shape of the arrow on a sign.
As soon as a presentable design-solution is available, it is
helpful to ask stakeholders to try to use it and to comment on it. Of
course, the criteria that were established in the first phase are
applied to check if real improvements have been made. It is unlikely
that the first suggestion will meet all criteria, and several
reiterations of a design are fairly common. A solution should only be
implemented if all stakeholders agree to some extent that it is
worhtwhile to implement it.
Step 3. Implementing and monitoring
The implementation of a design-solution in the 'real world' is always a fairly nerve-wrecking step. Although all precautions are taken, and every effort has been made to avoid mistakes, practice always seem to find ways to minimize effects. After the introduction, a designer should be able to look at the design in practice and keep track of how well the design is working. It is necessary to keep monitoring the practial implementation and look at flaws that are emerging with the chosen solution and how it is being received. This is the only way to learn from mistakes, and make any necessary changes.
Integration in organizations
And these three stages only comprise about half the workload ... The other half is taken by 'diplomatic manoeuvring' or negotiating with stakeholders (Sless, 2000). It is obvious that not all graphic design projects should take this elaborate approach: it only applies to some very specific projects in which real gains are essential for both the commissioner as well as the people who use it.
However, when an
elaborate information design process is used, it becomes essential that
a project is not seen as a separate and unique activity, but that it is
thouroughly integrated in an organization. The design activities need
to be embedded in other processes such as brand-development,
advertising, business strategies and financial strategies. The
information design approach shifts the 'project related activities of
graphic designers' towards a 'co-operation towards a visual strategy'.
In order to do this, it is essential to make sure that all three steps
of the information design process are done thouroughly. It is unlikely
that a single person would be able to take all three steps. Information
design clearly requires teamwork.
Whether this elaborate approach
improves the visual qualities - 'the looks' - of visual information
remains to be seen. I think that it depends on who is judging. If only
the visual qualities are taken into account, than this information
design approach does probably not lead to very novel solutions. But if
the visual qualities are seen as an essential part of the whole
process, than both users and commissioners will benefit.
Schriver, K.A. 1997. Dynamics in document design. Creating text for readers. New York: John Wiley & Sons
Sless, D. 2000. Between prosthesis and panacea: some thoughts on the philosophy of information design. Paper presented at InfoDesign 2000, Coventry University, UK.
Sless, D. 2001. Usable medicines information. Communication Research Institute Australia: http://www.communication.org.au
Voet, L. & Grisolle, J.1980. The Plantin Press (1555 - 1589). A Bibliography of the Works Printed and Published by Christopher Plantin at Antwerp and Leiden I Utrecht. pp 280 - 315
Whitehouse, R. 2001. Information Design: A Graphic Designer s Salvation. Originally published in Communication Arts August Photography Annual 2001. (See also: http://www.commarts.com/ca/coldesign/rogW_116.html)
Wright, P. 1988. Issues of content and presentation in document design. In M. Helander (Ed.) Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Ch. 28, p629-652.
About this article
This article is reprinted from 2+3D magazine, with permission.
About the Author
Karel van der Waarde received a PhD in Information Design from Reading University, England (1994). He has a company in Belgium which specializes in the development and testing of visual-information. He is also editor of Information Design Journal, moderator of the InfoDesign and InfoDesign-Cafe discussion lists and owner of the InformationDesign.org website.
About 2+3D magazine
The magazine is devoted to graphic and product design but also covers some issues from other disciplines related to design like art, psychology or sociology. Articles are in Polish with English summaries.