Information design and writing

Words are a primary means of communicating information and their arrangement (syntax) and meaning (semantics) require consideration if they are to convey ideas effectively. The initial decision on choice of words and their composition into sentences can be critical to the reader’s understanding of the concept being expressed. Conversely a lack of thought prior to the composition of words can lead to ambiguity and confusion. In 2003 the United States Secretary of Defence made the following press statement: ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know’. See The Poetry of D H Rumsfeld.

English as a global language
In 1550 the number of English speakers in the world was estimated at 5 million. In 1950 this was said to have increased to 250 million. In this new millennium the figure is thought to have risen to 400 million. In 2050 it is thought that 50% of the world’s population will be competent in English. English has been adopted as a global language and is the prime means of inter-cultural communication – from international air traffic control to MTV. In June 2009 the one millionth ‘word’ entered the English language and it was web2.0.

Cross-cultural implications
Businesses and governments have had to develop a respect for the cross-cultural values of other countries they have contact with. Global communication requires a sensitivity to: the tone of voice and level of directness adopted; the relative importance placed upon certain information; assumed level of knowledge and education; the technological infrastructure (a high-tech culture may fail in a low-tech context); and cultural aesthetic standards.

Translation between languages
Whether translating information from one language to another or using English as the language of preference the following is useful guidance: use short words, sentences and paragraphs;
 use one idea per sentence;
 remove superfluous information;
 use standard and consistent terminology;
 use a consistent tense and active voice;
 compile a list of acronyms and technical terms for a glossary;
 avoid culturally specific phrases or humour that may not translate well;
 avoid metaphors, similes, slang, analogies, ambiguities, jargon, fashionable, scientific or technical language that might not translate across cultures;
 consider how graphics, devices, iconography, numbered lists, bullet points will translate.

The writer John Simmons encourages us to ‘avoid jargon, let’s aim to be clear, but let’s not remove idiosyncrasy from language’. Plain English has its limits, over editing can alter the original meaning or intention of the communication. Simmons is fascinated by ambiguity. ‘Ambiguity is never far away from the surface meaning of words…words are capable of many layers of meaning’. Ambiguities can cause confusion and on occasion be amusing, however they can be dangerous too. When Derek Bentley called out ‘Let him have it, Chris’ it cost both his life and that of the policeman. Was he in fact indicating that the gun should be handed over? See the following clip at 7 minutes and 20 seconds in.

Conversational and written language
Choice of words is important in helping people understand concepts. There is a tendency for academic and legal writing to use impenetrable and convoluted language. Conversational language is different from written language. Which of the following words would you use in a conversation? Utilise or use? Buy or purchase? Drink or beverage? The types of words we choose effects the accessibility to the message and tone of voice. Written language is altered to suit particular situations. Business with its insistent and urgent agendas favours the language of bullet points. Defining and writing for an audience is important when you want to communicate specific things to specific groups of people – ‘words are dead until they are read’. See The BBC News Style Guide.

Evolution of the English language
Changes in technology bring about changes in language usage and as a consequence shifts in the ways in which information is conveyed. The introduction of printing gave rise to new graphic expression such as bold type to gain emphasis. Conventions governing the presentation of information were set in place through layout techniques. The introduction of radio led to a range of styles of presentation such as commentary (sports and political), news broadcasts, weather forecast and the commercial. Television added vision to sound and again language was modified, as things that could be seen didn’t require describing. With the advent of satellite television language was further modified, with global broadcasting – alluding to the time of day had little meaning due to different time zones.

The Internet has had a profound effect on the way information is accessed, disseminated and exchanged. Email, the web, chat rooms, message boards and weblogs all have their associated language and communication conventions. The interactive and dialogic nature of this mode of communication has led some to comment that it is akin to ‘written speech’. The web and mobile phones have seen the emergence of an abbreviated form of message transference for example gr8, cul8r, m8 (great, see you later, mate). See also David Crystal on Txting.

Writing styles have changed dramatically. Sentences and paragraphs are shorter both in printed documents and in online text. Time is an increasing factor in our lives. Writers prepare text for ease of use. There are summaries, fast-track text and pullout quotes. We navigate information at different levels such as headings or summaries. With time at a premium you cannot assume your message will be read let alone absorbed and remembered.

Plain English
In recent times there has been a trend towards ‘plain’ English in terms of official speech and writing. In the past official communications such as letters from insurance companies often used convoluted language. Government, business and the public sector are making efforts to express their messages in a manner that most people are likely to understand. The Plain English Campaign has focused on the language used on medical packaging. The use of ambiguous language such as ‘use sparingly’ or ‘take after meals’ was found to be open to many interpretations.

Unclear English
In the past application forms, safety instructions, official letters, hire purchase documents, guarantees, licenses, contracts, insurance policies all attempted to communicate with people using their own specific language. In Britain the Golden Bull and Foot in Mouth awards identify examples that have baffled users of information. The Double-speak awards in the US have much the same objective in highlighting factually incorrect, deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing or self-contradictory information. Positive benefits have been experienced by organisations that have revised their forms or instructional literature in the form of increased sales and customer satisfaction. See Boag Associates reference.

Readability scores
Rudolph Flesch devised a reading test that scored texts between 0 (unreadable) to 100 (easy to read). Using Flesch’s system many states in the US require insurance documents to score between 40 and 50. Reader’s Digest publications average scores of 65, Time magazine scores at 52 and the Harvard Law Review 32.

Online translation service
The accuracy of online translation services, such as Babelfish, cannot always be guaranteed. Below are well known English phrases that have been translated to another language and back again.

‘He does not want to be pigeon-holed’ became: ‘it did not wish to be perforated dove’.

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’, became:
‘the posts and the rock can break my bones, but the names never distort me’.

These examples point out how rapidly language can lose its meaning when relying on mechanical means of translation. Thanks to my colleague Biggles for these examples.