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.
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?
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