INFORMATION DESIGN PROCESSES: DEVELOPING ACCESSIBLE AND UNDERSTANDABLE INFORMATION

08 November 2006
Karel van der Waarde
Karel van der Waarde

Introduction
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?

It 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?

Additional activities
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.

A 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.

These four 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.

Some references
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.