How To Effectively Communicate Your Message – Marrying Content and Design

In government, there has been a movement to bring government communications into “plain-language.” In 1998, President Clinton released an executive memo mandating agencies to write in plain language, and recently, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, requiring agencies to write in plain language.

The plain language act is an important movement, as the web became widely accessible, there was a need to change how government communicates with citizens and makes information available. Likewise, with the development of infographics, visualization, the same theory that moved plain language forward – make information easy to consume and easy to find – also should be applied with the creation of so many different kinds of representations of information, especially through the boom in data and visualizations.

A constant tension always is content versus design. Frankly, I use to lean more towards the content side, but as of late, I’ve found myself quickly drifting back to the middle. The lesson learned for me is that both are equally important, and the key is to think about the product, the audience, and the most critical information that needs to be communicated. So below, I’ve listed expanded on some of my lessons learned, all with the goal of not putting content or design first, but the product which is being developed.

Art is In Simplicity

One of the things I’ve found is that there is an art to simplicity. There is absolutely a skill to consolidate information without oversimplifying. This means that throughout the writing and design process, the most critical points are known, and condensed for readers so they can easily gather and consume key content.

3 Kinds of Readers

Whenever you are developing a product, remember that there are going generally three kinds of readers. There will be people who will skim through the entire product, people who will read the first one or two pages, and people that will read the entire product front to back. The goal is to remember to develop something that meets all three kinds of readership.

To do so, you need to clearly marry content and design. The product must be aesthetically pleasing for those who skim, contain a clear introduction to what the report/document/brief is, and a well written product that conveys all the necessary information. This process will not occur if the focus is solely on content, or solely on design. Some cases might drift more heavily towards content, and some other towards design, but the lesson is identifying which way to swing, and then working closely with peers to develop the product.

Put Product First

At times, content will be driving the wheel, others, it will be design. When you have a clear scope of the project, and what you are doing, it’s easier to ask for help, collaborate on the project and helps the entire team understand the value of what the team is producing.

Be Patient

It’s not easy to sit down and write a perfect press release, brochure, blog post or any other kind of government communication you may create. Likewise, the design process is not easy as well, things take time to develop, and to develop well. With anything, work closely as a team, designer and writer, to map out deadlines and really learn what is feasible on both ends. Things will always change, but by making sure you are communicating on time frames, needs and any challenges that your team may encounter, this will alleviate some tensions and help to develop a great product.

What are some of the ways you have gotten to the bottom of content verse design? How are you creating great products that clearly communicate your message to citizens?

This post is brought to you by the GovLoop Communications & Citizen Engagement Council. The mission of this council is to provide you with information and resources to help improve government. Visit the GovLoop Communications and Citizen Engagement Council to learn more.

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Jay Johnson

There is great opportunity in realizing that words and visuals are not separate entities, but two sides of the same coin. When combined, they are greater than the sum of their parts in terms of effectively communicating information.

David W. Scott

1. Know thy audience.

2. Make sure that whatever you write/present is consistent whether zoomed out or zoomed in.

3. Whenever possible, write/present the way you would talk to 1 to 3 friends sitting around the kitchen table.

David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Pat. I agree that design is increasingly important compared to content. USA Today is a great example of balancing concise content with excellent design (print and online). Perhaps that’s why USA Today has remained one of the leading newspapers, with a circulation of about 2 million, rivaling the more intellectually oriented Wall Street Journal — and surpassing both the NY Times and Washintgon Post. Also, if you are preparing a voluminous document, especially a technical one with lots of data, make sure the executive summary is top notch — as that’s all many people will pay attention to.

Allan Lawlor

I’m frequently asked to make dull content seem interesting with design, and slightly less often, to implement flashy designs that lack meaningful messages. I like your glass-half-full take on the situation. It’ll help explain the concept to clients.

Cat Robinson

Great post Pat!

The top 2 takeaways for me were remembering your “3 types of readers,” and also “patience.” When composing work, many forget to plan on the skimmer. Realistically, many readers have a end goal in mind and are looking to extract information quickly.

As a designer myself, I have found that being transparant about the design process and deadlines is the right way to interact with your client/team members. Allotting time for the brainstorming and editing phase is essential to managing expectations. Overall though, clients will appreciate honesty and quality over haste-fully composed work.

I think the main concept to have on the forefront of your mind when designing content is, “How will this design enhance (not distract) what I am saying?”