Information design is essential for effective technical communication. It is not enough for information to be accurate and relevant; it must also be arranged in a way that engages the reader so that the reader wants to read it. The design and layout of a document can make all the difference if that document gets the attention the information warrants.
In the book Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Johnson-Eilola and Selber discuss elements important to the display of information. “While research on information design is broad and diverse, technical communicators can most productively start with three areas central to displaying content visually:
- • grouping content rhetorically,
- • organizing content visually to show contrasts, and
- • signaling structural relationships” (pp.389-390).
While it is not something that is obvious to most, these design aspects are instrumental in effectively displaying information. Grouping content rhetorically can be done in several different ways. One example of grouping is “reorganizing lengthy content into meaningful groups, particularly as they help their clients move content from paper to the web. Breaking the text into short paragraphs (e.g., one to three sentences) promotes faster reading, and importantly, the shorter length influences readers’ sense of how much effort it will take to read” (p. 391). We see this type of grouping of information in certain news websites which group short summaries at the beginning of articles so the reader can have the option either skimming the summary or reading the entire article.
I’ve always found fascinating what a difference a change in the appearance of the text can make: using larger or smaller-sized font, the choice of font used, the case in which something is typed. These subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) nuances can really make a difference in how information is conveyed and received. The modifications to text fall under the area of organizing content visually to show contrasts. “Studies comparing serif and sans serif faces find that readers pay more attention to the amount of contrast among styles within a typeface (e.g., light, medium, bold, extrabold, black) than they do to the distinction between serif and sans serif (Schriver 1997; Spencer, Reynolds, and Coe 1974)” (p. 393). It’s quite possible that the average reader is not too affected by the font being serif or sans serif, but their attention is most likely caught by the bold heading of the article. It may be that they are more concerned if the typeface is a large enough font for them to read. “Smaller typography slows reading, but tends to be read with better accuracy (perhaps because more concentration is required to see it)” (p. 395). This finding is interesting to me, as it makes so much sense, but has never occurred to me. I prefer a 12-point font on just about everything, but reading this makes me rethink that. I may begin to use 10-point font in my emails as an extra measure to attempt to ensure that people are actually reading them.
According to Solving Problems, a content’s structure is primarily signaled in two ways: visually and verbally (p. 396). The following is an example of visual signaling: “Size and position are primary visual cues to signal importance. When a message is dominated by a few large elements (e.g., photos), their size tells the reader they have priority in the message structure. Alternatively, when textual content is placed in a focal position for the reader (such as on the first page of a website), that position indicates the element’s significance within the context” (p. 396). We see these elements every day, but how many times do we notice them? The fact that we do not notice them, in my opinion, means that the signaling is being done correctly. Examples of verbal signaling are utilizing sidebars as well as headings and subheadings, which help to guide the reader’s attention.
Johnson-Eilola, J. and Selber, S.A. (Eds.). (2013). Solving Problems in Technical Communication. University of Chicago Press.
Schriver, K.A. 1997. Dynamics in document design: Creating texts for readers. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Spencer, H., L. Reynolds, and B. Coe. 1974. Typographic coding in lists and bibliographies. Applied Ergonomics 5:136–141.