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  • Tony Pritchard 10:48 am on August 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Data Visualisation, , , Information Design, , , , , Timeline, , ,   

    Information Design and Data Visualisation 

    This video attempts to show and explain aspects of Information Design and Data Visualisation as explored by the Postgraduate Certificate and Diploma Design for Visual Communication courses at the London College of Communication. The purpose of designing the visual representations of information is to make the communication more accessible, understandable and useable. This often means dealing with complexity and attempting to clarify meaning. It could be said that information is dead until it is read. A balance between clear communication and a visually engaging design needs to be struck.

     
    • Carina Marano 8:53 am on October 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      This independence of the coursework for the Postgraduate Certificate Design for Visual Communication at the London College of Communication makes it ideal for an online program. Is there any possibility it would become available online, specifically for students studying abroad?

      • Tony Pritchard 4:27 pm on October 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        That’s an interesting proposition which I raised with my programme leader at college. How would you see it working for you? Set projects? Video demonstrations/tutorials? Skype? Do you have any examples of practice you could point me in the direction of?

        • Carina Marano 11:28 pm on December 26, 2014 Permalink

          Two programs I’ve had experience with are Brandman University https://www.brandman.edu/ and Academy of Art University http://www.academyart.edu/. Brandman uses the Blackboard online system in which course work is divided by weeks and comprises of discussion threads, set projects, readings, and multimedia instructional aids such as videos. Academy of Art has an additional feature in their discussion threads that allows for marking and commenting on uploaded artwork for critiques.

          In addition, meeting features such as using Adobe Connect or Go To Meeting are helpful to discuss larger projects and facilitate small group work. I’ve seen this utilized every two weeks for 8 week courses to great effect.

          For a program like Visual Communication, I would recommend set projects with independent readings and video introductions, along with discussion forums to post to while the projects are in progress, and live meetings for critiques and follow up questions. There could be also be more live, but perhaps less formal interactions in the beginning and throughout the projects, such as video Skype office hours, or scheduled live chat sessions.

          The most successful online programs usually breakdown the coursework into smaller milestones throughout the class in order to assess that students are on track and are understanding each step of the process. This is in lieu of regular face to face meetings where the instructor can visually see the progression of work.

    • Tony Pritchard 8:11 am on December 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to write this. My DVC course (http://www.arts.ac.uk/lcc/courses/postgraduate/pg-dip-design-visual-communication/) uses Moodle as essentially an information repository for things like projects, handbooks, handouts, etc. We compliment this with a group blog where thoughts, images, movies, etc can be posted and discussed. We are still very much a face to face course though.

    • daniele 10:18 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Very well done on this set of new videos!! They are amazing!

      • Tony Pritchard 11:27 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks Daniele – just visited your site and am impressed by the Typographic Hierarchy poster. I’ll post on my Twitter page

        • daniele 11:41 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink

          Oh wow! Thanks for visiting and for posting! Honoured to be featured alongside all that great work!

  • Tony Pritchard 9:29 am on August 2, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Design Research, Design Theory, , Information Design, , Sketchbook, ,   

    Sketchbooks 

    These two films look at how Henrietta Ross and Cat Drew developed their sketchbooks. Too often we look at the finished items and not the process that led to the resolution of projects. Henrietta and Cat take you through how they documented, contextualised, experimented and evaluated their work on the Design for Visual Communication course at the London College of Communication. Those new to visual communication from other disciplines or a text-based education might find these films useful in understanding this part of the design process.

     
  • Tony Pritchard 11:54 am on August 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Information Design, Root 2, ,   

    Root 2 Design 

    During the 1980s and 1990s I was part of a collaborative design practice called Root 2 Design. Root 2 comprised Peter Gill (founder), Heleen Franken, Geoff Haddon and myself. Root 2 provided consultancy to the arts, design, commercial, professional and financial sectors. Geoff Haddon and myself subsequently took up posts within the UK Higher Education sector. Peter and Heleen moved to the lake district and continued the practice until recently. The newly launched website archives the work of the group and provides an insight into its design attitude.

     
  • Tony Pritchard 4:55 pm on May 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Information Design, , , London School of Economics, LSE, , ,   

    LCC and LSE Collaboration 

     
    • Horacio Raspeño 9:35 pm on February 24, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Very nice idea and interesting results. Congrats, Tony and students of both LCC and LSE!

  • Tony Pritchard 12:14 pm on May 2, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Facebook, Google, Information Design, , Interactive Design, Khoi Vihn, Web Design   

    Information Encounters Part 4: Web and Interaction Design 

    In the fourth and final part of this Information Encounters series I look at design for web and interaction. I first wrote this article in 2004 with a first year undergraduate audience in mind. Much has changed in the intervening years: the growth of social media such as Facebook; and the ease of use of online communication such as blogging; has meant that these modes of information transfer have been integrated into our daily experiences.

    The image below is a blog theme designed by Khoi Vinh designed for WordPress

    Website and interaction design

    Website and interaction design are often linked as related activities, however interaction design is emerging as an overarching discipline in its own right. Interactivity is an umbrella term for many situations where there is a two-way flow of information between users or users and things. The term interactive implies that there is an element of something or someone responding to a user’s input and that there is a reciprocal relationship. Information is the base currency of most communication and is central to interactive design.

    The image below is of a simple website design for Hyperkit.

    Putting users first

    When designing for interactivity the designer has to afford particular attention to the potential user of the experience. This means putting the user first and understanding their perspective. Many websites fail to reach their target audience through a lack of user awareness, and misunderstanding the psychology of the medium and its linguistic conventions.

    Sensorial interaction

    We interact with the world through our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. They influence our intellectual and emotional understanding of all we encounter. The smell of baking bread in a supermarket or the interior of a new car can influence our purchasing decisions.

    The image below is of the Famous Grouse Visitor Centre by Land Design. Digital water reacts to the pressure exerted by visitors. The technology involves seismic floor sensors which trigger data projectors.


    Typography on the net

    Information is the backbone of the web and typography is the interface by which we gain access to knowledge. The web designer attempts to make information navigable, interactive and where possible customised to the end user. Designers require an understanding of the ways in which typography functions differently within screen and print environments. Legibility and readability are important concerns for both situations – text on screen is not as readable as in print and. Typefaces designed for print will not always translate well onto the screen and specially designed fonts for screen use are prevalent. Text that extends across the width of a browser window is difficult to track and tires the eye, however multi-column setting that requires vertical and horizontal scrolling probably won’t get read. A type size of 9 point in print is acceptable but would have people squinting if used on screen. There are a number of ways to display type on the net such as html text and graphic text. Graphic text is a low-resolution image of type. It won’t print out cleanly, can’t be copied or edited, won’t re-flow and can’t be indexed by search engines. A good site designer will check their site on various machines, in different browsers and on different platforms because factors such as colour and html type can display differently between screens.

    Writing for the net

    There is more to writing for the Internet than simply transferring print documents to screen via a pdf. People don’t browse the net in the same way as they do a magazine. The text has to be written shorter in length with additional headings; broken down into smaller paragraphs; links added; and sequenced over a number of pages. A clear and consistent style of writing should be adopted throughout with consideration given to: tone of voice; language; and cultural context, particularly when information is intended for a global audience. It was reported that some early internet users, unfamiliar with the language of the web, left websites when confronted by a button saying go. The intention was that they should go to the next link not leave.

    A diagnostic activity

    Website design can be viewed as a diagnostic process analysing the purpose and function of a site and removing extraneous elements. The website often acts as a catalyst for evaluating the structure of an organisation and all aspects of its presentation through other media such as print. It is a sobering thought for organisations to realise that someone viewing a page on their website is one click away from leaving. User consideration is a compelling argument for businesses that want to stay in business.

    Aesthetics versus usability

    There is much debate over the relative importance of the appearance of design and usability. The early dot com crash was in some part due to a misunderstanding of the web. The fashion for Flash-based sites is highly seductive as they look and sound cutting-edge. Appearance is a powerful marketing tool and companies feel obliged to invest in trend-setting animated sites to remain competitive. Many designers previously concentrated on the front-end graphics believing this sufficient to attract attention to a site. What became neglected was the job of guiding people through the rest of the content. Attractive and entertaining introductory pages that were winning awards weren’t helping to sell company’s products and services. People now know the difference between Flash and html sites. If people are searching for information or want to buy something and they get a Flash intro screen they may just stop there.

    Information or entertainment or both?

    A visitor to a music-based website might expect to have an experience equivalent to a pop video. The site may be an infotainment site and catering for a particular audience who may have leisure time to casually surf and engage with the fun elements of the site. An information-orientated site might not work in this instance. Clear access to information might lead to a limited experience, it might not lead to chance encounters with other content.

    The curse of information design

    In ‘The Curse of Information Design’, Scott Jason Cohen makes a plea to remember imagination, intuition and chance when all the talk is off usability. Information architects, user experience consultants and usability experts provide useful guidelines on well-structured sites. He warns us that ‘Jackson Pollock and John Cage would run screaming from the web for one reason: there is no room for the happy accident’. Creativity can be seen as a dangerous thing on the web, it’s a business gamble. A novel presentation or pioneering interface might engage the potential visitor or simply confuse them. You might lose a customer so convention persists and a site that might have introduced new ways of conveying information is abandoned. Cohen suggests an alternative vision. ‘The Internet is the single greatest collaborative effort ever in the history of mankind. It is a funhouse mirror of our collective imagination’. Usability is an important issue but it should not be used as an argument against innovation within a growing discipline.

    Database sites

    One of the advantages of this medium is the ability to summon and reconfigure information according to individual choice. Searching for information can equally be highly frustrating. Database sites need some parameters so as not to overwhelm users with data.

    Design for intuition

    When a user arrives at a web page they scan for words and images and expect to be able to click selections. These are normally links to other items on the page or different pages. The onscreen arrow may remain in the same position. The designer can choose to exploit this by ensuring another related link is at this location on screen. An unrelated link might seem counter-intuitive. The convention of clicking is now an intuitive action and we expect a response to result. Clicking a thumbnail enlarges an image. Click again and it disappears. Virtual environments use analogies of the physical world. Home is where we start most of our journeys. A link back to a home page is a reminder of a starting point. We enter or exit buildings through doors.

    Search engines

    Search engines help people find things on the web. They are like vast libraries and allow us access to limitless information. Search engines locate and index sites through html. There are now strict protocols governing the way sites are indexed. Google assesses websites through: site name; page titles; html text; images with alt tags; meta tags; and key words. The site is scored and rated on these criteria and placed in a hierarchical index. Ratings are subject to constant change and have led to bidding wars for keywords and sponsored links. Websites can also be registered with search engines so that they are indexed in advance. Linking to a site that is already indexed by a search engine will also ensure that your site will be found through your link. Popularity or contextual ratings increase the chances of appearing higher in search results, the more people viewing and linking to your site the more popular your rating. Websites are not only to be judged on their appearance and content but also how well they have complied with search engine indexing systems. A good website designer will not overlook the ‘under the bonnet’ engineering that will ensure the information gets seen.

    Who hasn’t Googled themselves? How many times do you come in the top ten?

    Interaction design

    Interaction design is still in its infancy. As with any new discipline there is a period of experimentation and testing the technology. The outcomes may have no specific commercial or utilitarian application. These are attempts to understand the implications of the medium for the wider world. Public acceptance of interaction design will be reliant on knowledge of potential users’ and their reactions to new concepts. How will they know how to interact? Will they be curious or phobic?

    The image below is the L’Oréal Poetry Harp by the Small Design Firm. Pluck a string and a digital stream of type is released extolling the virtues of women.

    A new model of information communication

    Interaction design allows users to experience communication in far more fluid terms, and invites people to immerse themselves in an experience where they are central to the construction and interpretation of meaning.

    Immersion

    Immersion refers to intense experiences that engage us at the deepest levels and draw us into an alternative world. Immersive experiences can equally be as simple as reading a book, listening to music or watching a film or play.

    Embracing multi-disciplinary thinking

    Interactive experiences exist within real time and real space. Andy Cameron of Fabrica describes this as ‘real space overlaid with another, virtual layer of responsiveness’. Interaction design is where related disciplines such as product design, fine art, graphic design, architecture and interior design converge.

    Everyday interactions

    We encounter interactions daily. A good interaction allows us to perform a function and move on. These are ones that, although we may not consciously notice, have been carefully designed to ease our transactions. Stand next to some lifts and watch bewildered people wonder what floor they are on. Stand next to a machine and watch someone frustratingly repeat stages over and over again not comprehending what’s going wrong.

    Travel cards

    The cost of implementing travel card schemes is very high. They are used by significant numbers of people and are responsible for generating the network operator’s income. Ticket machines use data transfer systems and often accommodate alternative methods of reading information. One type of travel card maybe fed through the machine whilst another read on top. Some systems inadvertently cancel out the other and prevent the correct information being recorded.

    Fire extinguishers

    The design of the fire extinguisher is an example where the architect, product designer and information designer have not communicated together. The architect builds the building, the product designer designs the extinguisher, and then the information designer designs the graphics and labels. The ability to operate this device in an emergency is vital, yet our concern for clear communication of information and its relation to the product and its environment remains wanting.

    Lifts

    Lifts are often designed at great cost specifically for the building they are being installed in. Some lifts have poorly designed information feedback such as the position of the floor announcements. We expect to hear a bell as we arrive at out floor. When we leave the lift we expect to see the number of the floor as we exit. Signs and directories offer additional help as we navigate to where we want to be.

    Mobile phones

    We interact with mobile phones via a series of messages displayed on the information panel. If one wants to send a text message there is a clear sequence of operations we expect to follow. The number of stages and the logical sequence to execute an action should facilitate ease of use.

    Hi-fi systems

    The fascias of hi-fi systems are often overloaded with knobs, features and lights. The quantity of features can compromise sound quality. Knobs can be confusing particularly if they are in a row and are identical. It is useful to create a hierarchy of knobs for example the on/off and sound knobs being most important.

    Life caching

    Camera phones and digital recorders have enabled people to record all aspects of their life. The ability to digitise all forms of media allows for a uniform method of storage. The memory required to store digital information is no longer such an issue. With broadband technology this information can be uploaded to the Internet and shared with a global audience.

    Interactive is the future

    Television is becoming more interactive; soon traditional services will become a smaller sub-division of the interactive umbrella. Radio and TV are on demand; if we miss a programme we can play it again at our convenience. Networking between communication devices such as mobile phones and computers are prevalent and enable responsive customisation of information. It should however be remembered, for all this technological focus, that there are still places in the world that haven’t heard a dial tone. What does all this mean for them?

    Below is an image from Body Movies by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Note how readily participants interact with each other’s shadows in ways they wouldn’t in other social encounters. This piece is a reminder of the street theatre of previous generations.

    References

    The Art of Experimental Interaction Design, Andy Cameron

    Digital Information Graphics, Matt Woolman

    Hypergraphics, Roy McKelvey

    Typography on the Net, Keith Martin

    Interview with Biggles, Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design, London College of Communication

    Web Design is 95% Typography, Oliver Reichenstein

    The Curse of Information Design, Scott Jason Cohen

    How to Save Your Life, Jack Schofield

    Botez Co

    Small Design Firm

     
  • Tony Pritchard 11:24 am on April 18, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Boag Associates, Books, , Derek Birdsall, Forms, Information Design, Magazines, , Newspapers, , Posters, , Tables,   

    Information Encounters Part 2: Print 

    Printing is a mechanical process by which an image (text or pictorial) is transferred onto a substrate (most commonly paper). It is a method of reproducing an image many times for distribution. Printing can occur in many formats primarily relating to a particular function: books, magazines, posters, brochures, newspapers, reports, forms, maps, ballots, instructions, packaging, timetables, manuals, guides, dictionaries, statistical presentations, telephone directories, encyclopedias, business stationery and catalogues.
    The illustration is a road map designed by Joel Katz that reads both ways

    The end of print?
    Print still persists in a digital age despite the existence of more efficient ways of storing information. Proclamations of ‘the end of print’ have often been declared within the very medium of print. One medium does not necessarily supersede and replace another. Radio, television, print, the Internet and exhibition environments co-exist as equally valid venues for information. There is more to the medium of print than purely a means of storing and conveying information. Items such as books have an object quality – they are tactile artefacts with presence and enhance the experience of information.

    ‘Escaping Flatland’
    In the introduction to ‘Envisioning Information’ Edward Tufte poses the following question to information designers. ‘The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; the paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on mere flatland?’ Tufte is challenging designers to escape the flatland of print, and expose the power of what Philip Morrison has called the ‘cognitive art’ of diagrams, maps and charts.

    The theory of data graphics
    Edward Tufte suggests that ink should be dedicated to the essential elements conveying data. Redundant ink is that which can be erased without loss of data. Ink is often used to ‘enhance’ the data and make it more visually appealing but it shouldn’t impede the communication of the data. Data-ink ratios can be calculated by subtracting redundant ink from the total area of ink used.

    Form design
    Forms are often the means by which people apply for an entitlement. Forms that use clear and accessible language and minimise visual complexity will appear more approachable and enable the rights of the people in most need. The use of structure, rules, colour and typography should be employed to enable the user access to information and not as decoration. Colour and tints can be used to clarify various sections of a form. Rules can be employed to link related entries and create subdivisions between different information. A grid structure can bring order and rationalise the number of alignments. Typography should be used to clarify meaning and provide emphasis to key parts of the information.
    The illustration is of a redesigned invoice by Boag Associates for the British Royal Mail. Since the redesign payment speed and customer satisfaction have improved with reduced helpline calls.

    Tables
    Information that is compared within rows or columns is set as a table. Cross rules help guide the eye horizontally across a series of related information. Down rules are better for situations where there is a stronger need to compare data vertically. The use of both cross and down rules can inadvertently focus attention on the resulting net-like structure and detract from the presented information. The use of two rule weights, one heavier than the other, is useful when making clear divisions within the same table.

    Posters
    In their book ‘Up Against the Wall’ Ian Noble and Russell Bestley assess the importance of the poster as a unique and enduring form of printed information.  ‘From the agitational and political to the promotional, persuasive and informational, the poster in all its forms has persisted as a vehicle for the very public dissemination of ideas, information and opinion’. In 1989 the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Holland appointed 8vo to design their posters. The only information that would appear on each poster would be the exhibition title, the date and the museum name. A singular image was selected for each poster. Type and image were fused together through what 8vo described as ‘visual engineering’. One was not subservient to the other; both served the purpose of attracting attention and imparting information. The posters had to be clear and legible from a distance this meant working with constraints such as minimum type sizes. Letter and word space were reduced to allow for an increase in size.
    The illustration is of a poster designed by 8vo for the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen

    Newspapers
    It has been argued that in an age of instant information newspapers principally inform opinion rather than provide news. At the end of the 1980s, David Hillman of Pentagram redesigned the UK newspaper, The Guardian. The re-design was more than just a make over – it influenced the quality and tone of the paper’s editorial stance and how it was perceived by its readership. Newspapers had changed little since the 1920s. The advent of new technologies during the 1980s revolutionised the production of news information. The designers set out five criteria for the design to meet: it had to be ‘readable, well-organised, clean, simple to put together, and distinctive’. For Hillman ‘readability is a matter of respecting the way the eye moves around a page: it starts top left and works down and across’. Space is highly controlled and at a premium. A newspaper has to contain a lot of information and there is little room for excessive white space. The information designer sets the parameters for the design: the grid, a masthead, typefaces, captions and use of pictures. Beyond this the sub-editors, who take control and work to tight deadlines, are more concerned with fitting words and images into limited space. The Guardian originally employed a highly flexible 24-column grid structure, which allowed for eight and six-column structures to co-exist enabling the change of pace that keeps a reader interested. The change in grid differentiates between types of information such as news, features, finance and comment. Justified text is a convention of newspapers. The use of a range left, ragged right setting signals a less formal attitude for a different type of information.
    The illustration is of David Hillman’s original redesign for The Guardian

    Publication design: books
    Information within books is structured in a linear sequence from front cover through the preliminary pages, contents page, chapters, sections and index. The contents page and index act as key reference points for locating information. Pages contain type, photographs, illustrations and graphics that are brought into a coherent structure through a grid. Headings and subheadings indicate a hierarchy within the text and act as milestones measuring progress through the information. Colour and graphic devices are often employed to create clear divisions within the page. Colour coded sections referenced into the contents page help reinforce navigation through a publication. Page numbers, running foots or heads help locate the reader within a section. Derek Birdsall, ‘the doyen of British book designers’ describes designing a book as ‘a process of discovery’ in which you put yourself in the ‘position of the reader’. Birdsall suggests that, ‘the design is not inflicted on the content – it is derived from it’. We visually ‘read’ pages before reading the words. Techniques to convert browsers to readers include: bold or large headings often in colour; large introductory paragraphs; pull-out quotes; special case studies on tinted panels add further context; and key information presented in bullet point lists.
    The illustration is from Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall and shows his redesign of the Church of England’s Common Prayer Book

    Publication design: magazines
    Magazines are published on an ongoing basis. As such the design specifications set down have to encapsulate eventualities that may occur in future issues. There is a need to establish a firm identity but there is also the necessity for change in order to sustain interest. The grid structure should allow a high degree of flexibility, capable of handling diverse elements whilst maintaining and endorsing the personality of the magazine.
    The illustration is from an article on Richard Hollis published in Eye Magazine

    United States ballot design
    In the United States, over 4000 district counties separately ‘design’ the form voters use to elect a candidate to arguably the most powerful position in the world. Jessie Scanlon, a contributing editor to Wired, points out that ‘ballots aren’t designed by a designer…instead, county officials oversee their production, and the ballots are put together according to each state’s election code…by people who have no idea how to use graphic design to convey information’. The Californian election code abandons an alphabetic ordering of the 133 candidates in favour of random order. Whilst this may seem fair, Scanlon describes this as ‘information design insanity’ and suggested a rotation ‘through the trusty A-Z from district to district…[would] ensure no one candidate benefited from being at the top of the list and also that no frustrated voter gave up on finding the name they were looking for’. The election for the President of the United States in 2000 was surrounded by controversy regarding the design of the Palm Beach County voting ballot. Republican George W Bush eventually triumphed over the Democratic candidate Al Gore in a very close presidential race. Some declared that the confusing design of the ballot had decided the presidency. The design required voters to punch out a hole next to their preferred candidate. The printed circular guide for hole punching was out of alignment with the names of the candidates. Interviews with voters subsequently revealed that they had felt confused by the design. Some had punched the wrong hole or had assumed that they had to punch two holes, one for president and one for vice president. 19000 ballots were found to have had two holes punched and discounted as spoilt votes. The official who was responsible for the ballot had sent out samples for comment and no one responded. Usability testing indicates testing by using and not just looking. The instructions for use read: ‘…they are to punch the hole next to the arrow next to the number next to the candidate they wish to vote for’. By asking a sample of people to perform the task any difficulties in comprehension would have been revealed.
    The illustration shows the confusion caused by an ill-designed ballot paper

    Maps, charts and diagrams

    Dr John Snow and the London cholera epidemic of 1854
    During the first two weeks of September 1854 an epidemic broke out in central London that claimed 500 lives. A number of the deaths were located at the junction between Broad Street and Cambridge Street. This was also the site of a public well where people would draw up water. Dr John Snow acquired the records of 83 deaths in the area and plotted them on a map. By doing so Snow had taken quantitative data and made it visible. By visualising information Snow revealed that all but 10 of the 83 deaths were within close vicinity of the Broad Street pump. He then set about explaining the anomalies. Snow alerted the authorities, who intervened by removing the pump handle thus disabling its function. Some have attributed this act as the decisive moment in the termination of the epidemic. Snow had established the link between the transmission of the epidemic and impure water

    The Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986
    In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded after take off, killing all seven astronauts. The cause of the explosion was linked to two defective sealing rubber O-rings that allowed inflammable liquid to leak and catch fire. Various data had been collected on previous missions including: date of launch, temperature, wind speed and O-ring damage. The data was displayed according to launch dates obscuring the connection between temperature and O-ring damage. The visual representation of the data, which also incorporated a graphic code, focused attention on its appearance rather than revealing its meaning. Edward Tufte has reassessed the data and maintains that a scatter-plot graph that maps O-ring damage against temperature clearly demonstrates the link between the two. The colder the temperature the more O-ring damage is likely to occur. Challenger was launched on the coldest ever launch date. Had this information been conclusively demonstrated, using appropriate and effective visual means, the decision to launch Challenger could have been postponed and the lives of those seven astronauts saved.

    Accessible information
    The Royal National Institute for the Blind has produced clear print guidelines for making information accessible through design. There are two million people in the UK with a sight problem. Making information available in an accessible way to people with a visual impairment enables them, as citizens with equal rights, to make decisions and lead independent lives. There is legislation under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) that requires compliance from public bodies. The act aims to bring to an end the discrimination disabled people can face in their daily life.

    References
    Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte
    Notes on Book Design, Derek Birdsall
    Magazine Design, William Owen
    Boag Associates Website
    Royal National Institute for the Blind Website (Clear Print Guidelines)
    Directgov Website (DDA)

     
  • Tony Pritchard 12:16 pm on April 11, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Band Aid, , Broadcasting, Eric Gill, Ethiopian Famine 1984, Information Design, Michael Buerk, The Guardian, The Sun   

    Information Encounters Part 1: Broadcast Media 

    Jef Raskin has pointed out that ‘information cannot be designed’ but what can be designed are the ‘modes of transfer and the representations of information’. We encounter information in many different environments such as books, television, smart phones, exhibitions and websites. Each shapes our experience and perception of information. In this four part series I’ll be considering the different information environments and how information is fashioned accordingly. This first installment looks at broadcast media.

    Auntie Beeb
    The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is known around the world for the high quality of its information provision. Lord Reith was the first Director-General of the BBC and his directive that the company should aim ‘to inform, educate and entertain’ remains the principles to which the BBC still aspires. In March 2003 they published the BBC News Style Guide and distributed it to all their radio, television and online journalists. The guide, which gathers together some of the institution’s best practice, outlines the key issues when using the English language to communicate information through the written or spoken word. Richard Sambrook who was Director of BBC News at the time of the publication’s release introduced the guide with the following statement. ‘Every time anyone writes a script for BBC News they are potentially touching the lives of millions of people – through radio, television and the internet. It brings with it responsibilities. BBC News is expected to set the highest standards in accuracy, fairness, impartiality – and in the use of language. Clear storytelling and language is at the heart of good journalism. Keep it plain and keep it simple’.
    Image: The original BBC Broadcasting House opened in 1932 and featuring statues by Eric Gill.


    Timed information
    Broadcasters receive and gather vast amounts of information in the form of statistics, words, pictures and audio recordings. This information is then greatly simplified and synthesized into digestible chunks of broadcasting. There are often limited chances to convey messages. Broadcasters are constrained by time and think in terms of seconds and minutes and not word count as with the print journalist. Commercial radio stations may typically have only three minutes each hour to broadcast eight to ten news stories.

    Broadcast writing
    Broadcast writing adopts a conversational style. The advice is to use words of few syllables and aim for the widest possible audience in terms of what is likely to be understood. Radio and television are generally not the medium for in-depth essays. Journalists have to take complex information and convert it to the essence of the story. Difficult terminology should be paraphrased in a way that an audience will understand. The top line must encapsulate the whole story and act like a bait to catch the listener’s attention. The key words must also be carefully selected. Words like government, council or policies turn most people off. Many editors subject articles to ‘the pub test’. Would a listener recount the story in the same language in the casual setting of a pub?

    Linguistic gymnastics
    Journalists have evolved a peculiar language that is seldom heard in conversation. The following are examples of ‘journalese’: ‘quiet but tense’; ‘glaring omission’; ‘rushed to the scene’; and ‘moment of truth’. Industry chiefs hammer out 11th hour settlements. People are rushed to hospital and fight for their lives. Sustained fatal injuries means the person has died – so why not say so? These are attempts to ‘sex-up’ the story. The BBC encourages the use of clear and simple language, which is written in a natural style for the ear rather than the eye.

    Pictures and words
    Television journalists are working in a bi-medial format. Writing with pictures is different from writing without them. Writing for Ceefax or online is different from delivering a radio broadcast.

    Gotcha
    Historic moments are often encapsulated in a single word or phrase uttered by a journalist. The use of the word ‘Gotcha’ expressed a sense of retribution at the sinking of the Argentinean warship Belgrano and not regret at the loss of life.
    Image: How The Sun reported the sinking of the Belgrano.

    People power live on TV
    UK Citizen Diana Gould confronted the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher live on television regarding the sinking of the Belgrano. The encounter on this broadcast was later reappraised. You can see this reappraisal by scrolling across the options at the end of the video below.

    A conduit for information
    A journalist is a conduit for the information they are conveying. A radio journalist adopts the view that they can see what you can’t and their duty is to describe the scene. A television journalist doesn’t need to depict in such detail. The skill is in knowing when to speak and when to remain silent. Michael Buerk’s report for the BBC on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 inspired the band-aid movement. He said very little. The pictures told the story and he gave factual information such as how many people were affected. It is not regarded as good practice for television broadcasters to talk over everything.
    Video: Michael Buerk’s 1984 report on the Ethiopian famine which inspired the Band Aid charity record.

    Analogies to print
    In terms of sequencing information certain aspects of television and radio presentation are roughly analogous to print. The front cover of a book attempts to establish the identity for the content in much the same way the music or opening titles do on broadcast programmes. The key stories at the top of the programme act as the contents page. In radio and television these preliminary enticements are called a tease. A newspaper vendor’s stand might announce ‘Verdict in pedophile case’. It won’t tell you whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty. You have to buy the newspaper to find out. Television and radio broadcasts announce the headlines at the top of the programme and tell people what is in the news today with the enticement of more detail later.

    Presentation of broadcast information
    The television presentation of news information is constantly changing in order to maintain public interest. With the expenditure on technology broadcasters are keen to create impressive displays. Sets often have a huge graphic information board and sweeping semi-circular track. As a story arrives on screen it is accompanied by what is called a ‘slug of a story’ for example ‘Iraq bomb’ might appear on screen as the announcer is describing the scene. Although these may seem like gimmicks the intention is to make politics and hard news more accessible. If the news programme is on a commercial channel, consideration is usually given to the advertising that precedes or succeeds an item. In the past there has been unfortunate scheduling. The song ‘Disco Inferno’ once followed a radio news item on a fire in a disco.
    Image: Nicholas Owen on BBC News 24 discussing the potential impact of YouTube broadcasts on the British 2010 General Election. The news ‘slug’ at the bottom is keeping viewers informed of breaking news.

    Writing for different audiences
    The same news report is often written several times for different audiences such as: children, the world service or a pop audience. Whether the news is broadcast on a local, national or global scale will influence the information conveyed. A global audience will appreciate being told the proper names and titles of people and full information on locations and organisations. Information is now broadcast internationally 24 hours of the day crossing time zones. Stating the time or using the word foreign would have little meaning to a global audience.
    Video: How a children’s TV channel reported the death of a presenter.

    Local level information
    Information is also available on a personal level, a text message can be sent to the BBC from a mobile phone and bespoke information tailored to individual interests can be returned. News information is also going ultra local as well with information being provided at the level of the small community. The term glocal refers to the ability to scale from local to global.

    Ambiguity
    Ambiguity seems ever ready to surface and confuse. Some 2000 years ago the Roman theoretician Quintilian wrote that ’one should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand’. The following were extracted from broadcast reports. ‘For the second time in six months, a prisoner at Durham Jail has died after hanging himself in his cell’. ‘Sixty women have come forward to claim they have been assaulted by a dead gynaecologist’.

    Some advice
    When delivering information in the form of news it is a good idea not to taint it with personal opinion. The audience can decide whether something is good or bad news by themselves. Journalists are also advised not to introduce an item with a negative thought such as ‘it is likely to be of little interest to many people’. Why then would anyone begin to listen? Beginning a story with ‘As expected’ is inadvisable as it suggests the outcome is predictable.

    Acronyms
    If the audience is unfamiliar with acronyms associated with a particular sphere of activity they will feel excluded. The full name should be spelt out first, then resort to the acronym thereafter.

    Active and passive voice
    There are situations where an active voice will enliven a sentence. A passive voice can mask an idea rather than state it explicitly. Politicians tend to adopt a passive tone of voice for example they are more likely to say ‘mistakes were made’ rather than ‘we made mistakes’. A subtle change in wording distances the individual from responsibility.

    Similar sounding words
    Certain words in the English language look and sound very similar and can lead to mistakes in conveying meaning for example; affect and effect; principle and principal and stationery and stationary. A good dictionary is advisable.

    Confusing choices
    Many of us struggle between the choices for certain words. When would you use fewer or less? What is the difference between that and which? When is it right to use may or might?

    Cue and intro writing
    Continuity between news items is vital. This often relies on what is called a cue or hook. The cue writer and correspondent need to be aware of what each other are doing so that the two match seamlessly. If the cue is a repetition of the first sentence of the report it will demonstrate a lack of good planning and an unprofessional attitude. Likewise some forethought is required when picking up from the exit of a piece.

    Numerical and statistical representation
    The writer Hilaire Belloc said that ‘lucidity is the soul of style’ and it is worth keeping this in mind when conveying complex data through broadcast media. Television uses the graphical representation of data to good effect often with animated sequences that reveal other levels of information. Newspapers provide sequential information taking the reader from the headline through introductory texts into further levels of detail contained in diagrams and charts. Radio, a medium of sound, does not have the advantage of graphic representation. It is difficult to visualise numerical information without seeing it. Too much statistical information can numb the listener and lose their sense of the story. People need to understand the broad trends in simplistic terms for example are the numbers going up, down or remaining the same? People are more likely to remember the number 3000 rather than 2993 or 3006. Mixing numerical systems such as percentages, decimals, fractions and real values will not make much sense to many people and will fail to inform the viewer or listener.

    Sensitive language
    When broadcasting information one should avoid causing unnecessary offence through thoughtless use of insensitive language. The BBC Producers’ Guidelines covers such areas as gender, ethnicity, minorities, disabilities, religious groups, sexual orientation and age.

    The rhythm of sentences
    Reading out aloud sentences intended for broadcast is important to avoid unfortunate rhythms and rhymes. A series of even length sentences can sound like a staccato proclamation. Pronunciation needs to be clear as common words are often mispronounced. Contractions or negatives can sometimes sound like a positive. It is acceptable to spell things out in broadcasting. If spelling out ‘weren’t’ to ‘were not’ makes the information clearer then the objective of clarity over rules expedience. Sibilance is a hissing sound that derives from speaking words out aloud with a preponderance of the letter ‘s’.

    Words
    Words are tools of the information trade. Using the right word to express precisely what is meant is not being pedantic. If the listener can’t have faith in the means of expression what faith can they have in the facts that are being conveyed? Where there is an alternative short word it should be used in preference to the longer alternative. Here are a few examples: ‘make’ instead of ‘manufacture’; ‘about’ not ‘approximately’; and ‘pay’ rather than ‘remuneration’. Vogue words demonstrate fashion consciousness in language but don’t always lend themselves to clear communication. Current vogue words include: fashionista and pivotal. Time is of a premium in broadcasting and one should consider single words that represent whole phrases. ‘Leaves much to be desired’ means ‘poor’. ‘By virtue of the fact that’ means ‘because’. ‘With the exception of’ means ‘except’. Concise writing is a virtue. Sometimes there is unnecessary repetition of meaning in the combination of words for example: new innovation; close scrutiny; and exact replica. John Allen, who compiled the BBC News Style Guide, concludes that ‘simplicity is the key to understanding…short words in short sentences present listeners and viewers with the fewest obstacles to comprehension’.

    References
    Information Design, Robert Jacobson
    The BBC News Style Guide, John Allen
    The Guardian Style Guide
    Interview with Martin Shaw, Course Director Postgraduate Diploma Broadcast Journalism

     
  • Tony Pritchard 12:28 pm on February 28, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Charts, , Diagrams, Graphs, Information Design   

    Visualising truth and lies 

    Introduction
    Information designers have a particular responsibility when creating the visual representations of data, which place an interpretation on perceived facts and truths. My colleague, Teal Triggs, recently suggested that ‘all information is propaganda’. The design and mediation of information is also subject to bias. We can’t assume that the picture we are being presented with is ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

    Diagrams, charts and graphs
    In the book ‘Diagram: The instrument of Thought’, Keith Albarn and Jenny Mial Smith state that, ‘the diagram can represent at a glance what a verbal description can only present in a sequence of statements. It is the ideal mode for describing relations between things’. When presented with statistics it is the role of the information designer to determine the most appropriate form of representation. The three main graph or chart categories are line, bar and pie. The designer should test the efficiency of the graph. By transposing the two axes of a graph a different picture may emerge. Limitations of space may require a reassessment of the graph type or orientation.

    Statistical enlightenment
    The designer and educator, Kenneth J Hiebert has written perceptively about statistical information in his book, ‘Graphic Design Sources’. ‘Although all design is based on information, working with statistical information presents special challenges. For one thing, many people find statistics eminently boring. They resent the idea that things, attitudes, points of view, and choices can be reduced to numbers. They view numbers as cold, cerebral, resisting the poetic, and resisting depth of experience. Yet there is more to numerical relationships than this. They are the basis of many religious mysteries and are often assigned emotional qualities. Numerical relationships underlie music. When rightly conveyed, statistical information places data in a context that truly enlightens’.

    Statistical obsession
    The idea of statistics and their visual representation shouldn’t be inherently abhorrent. Numbers permeate our daily existence. We have lucky numbers (the national lottery has made millionaires). Time is measured by numbers (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc). Statistics often precipitate a lively debate. We are rather pleased with ourselves when we reel off a set of statistics impressing our friends with our depth of knowledge. They are vital components of television news and documentaries. In short, if we are truthful, we are not merely fascinated by statistics but obsessed by them.

    Transcending language
    A graph or chart can deliver a complex message immediately in an arresting form that transcends language and it is generally assumed that the use of such a device is to clarify and enhance the information and not to provide stylistic decoration. Diagrams produce a picture or shape of an overall trend. They do not necessarily convey detailed information, a table does this better but is not as immediate as a graph.

    Line Graph
    A line graph is composed of a series of X and Y co-ordinates linked by a line plotted within horizontal and vertical axes. There can be one line or many lines within a single graph. Default graphs produced by software often require modification by the designer. They are as much a component of the overall design as a carefully cropped photograph or styled text. Consider the visual language of the graph. Are the tick marks always necessary? Do the data marks on the line need to be so heavily signposted?

    Bar Chart
    A bar chart is a series of bars measuring a variety of heights (or widths). These bars can be proportioned to different widths although within the same graph they should remain a uniform thickness. Bars can be compared by overlapping them. They can be different colours; appear to be three-dimensional; and orientated vertically or horizontally. Again the designer should question the initial default graph style. Do the bars have to so thick? Do the bars stand shoulder to shoulder or do you introduce space between them?

    Pie Chart
    A pie chart is a circle divided into segments. Imagine cutting a cake into different size slices. They can be different colours and coded into a key or labelled with a line pointing at each segment. They can remain in a circle; be pulled apart separately; or dimensionalised.

    Chart distortions
    Distorting either the X or Y axis can dramatically alter how information is visually presented. If a line graph is compressed horizontally the distances between the co-ordinates will reduce so that the lines connecting them will appear to be much more acute in their troughs and peaks. Changing the vertical axis to run from 90-100 instead of 0-100 will make the line of the graph more extreme in its shape (see example below). Statistics can be made to look more turbulent or stable depending on the level of distortion.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics
    The author Mark Twain is attributed with having said that ‘there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics’. In his book ‘How to Lie With Statistics’ Darrell Huff warns of a ‘terror in numbers’. His book is a wake-up call to all those who have a blind acceptance of statistics. Huff further cautions us against our unquestioning faith in data. ‘The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalise, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify’. People have become sceptical concerning statistics. There is a feeling that argument and counter argument can be sustained by data. Spin is political jargon for affecting the truth and attempts to give a favourable interpretation of information to the media. Documents are ‘sexed-up’ with compelling facts and figures all purporting to be versions of the truth. In the political satire ‘The Thick of It’, a politician replies to the accusation he has lied by stating ‘I believe it was Derrida who said there is no such thing as universal truth’. This clip from the film ‘In the Loop’ shows Malcolm Tucker attempting to manage the flow of information.

    Conclusion
    The same information can be dressed up to appear differently. Which sounds better 75% customer satisfaction or 25% dissatisfied customers? 8.3% of disciples betrayed Jesus. Judas Iscariot was the individual out of twelve disciples that betrayed Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t lied to you – I’ve altered your perception of the truth. Next time you are presented with information look a little closer. The next time you as a designer are asked to present information think through the consequences of your actions.

    References
    How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff
    Graphis Diagram 1&2, Martin Pedersen
    Graphic Design Sources, Kenneth J Hiebert
    Diagram: The instrument of Thought, Keith Albarn and Jenny Mial Smith

     
  • Tony Pritchard 11:36 am on February 21, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Chris Morris, Hierarchy, Information Design, , Oxfod English Dictionary, The Day Today,   

    Hierarchy 

    Introduction
    The Oxford English Dictionary defines hierarchy as a ranking system ordered according to status or authority. A hierarchy often refers to the echelons of a hierarchical system such as The Church, Government or the Army. These institutions denote relative importance through the naming of ranks or positions. Hierarchy is a value system and dependent on who is making the judgement and what the criteria is. The creation of a hierarchy within information is a fundamental method of organising and imparting data. It is the H within the LATCH theory.

    Typographic hierarchy
    Typography has a dual purpose, on the one hand it attracts attention through the impact of its dynamic form, on the other it must impart critical information with clarity. Information designers analyse the text and investigate the means of articulating the information, assigning relative importance through typographic techniques. The intention of performing such a task is to encourage people to read information in a pre-conceived order. Emphasis is given through contrast in: size, weight, position and colour of type (including tints). The use of capitals, small capitals and italics are often used to denote specific meaning. Use of typographic devices such as rules or reversing type white out of a solid colour can also be considered. Care needs to be taken however, as too many shifts in emphasis will defeat the original purpose of communicating information with clarity. Typefaces such as Univers and Helvetica, which have a systematised range of weights and simplicity of form, are particularly suitable for gaining emphasis and imparting information effectively. The sequence in which information is organised influences hierarchy. The medium of print lends itself to linear narratives and commonly employs covers, contents pages, section dividers and chapters to guide us through sequential information. The ability to change the size, weight, colour and percentage tint of a typeface allows designers to create implied depth. The overlapping of type implies one thing is in front of another and denotes relative importance ie the top layer exerts dominance over the bottom layer. The important concept to be grasped is that a hierarchy is gained through contrast. Slight shifts in contrast are less dramatic than greater shifts in emphasis for example the difference between 9-point type and 10-point type will be less detectable to the human eye than 9-point and 18-point. Changes in weight should also be distinct. The design work of 8vo demonstrates how the use of one typeface such as Unica, Helvetica or Futura can be used to create successful hierarchies using dramatic but controlled changes in weight and size.

    Website architecture, information hierarchy and navigation
    Information hierarchy within websites is often determined by the structure of the site. Navigation is key to the user’s understanding of their location within the hierarchy. Menus, site maps, navigation panels and digital breadcrumb trails all demonstrate the information hierarchy. Most websites are a series of pages connected by hyperlinks within a network. The considered structuring of information into categories and hierarchies forms the information architecture. The designer considers how this information will be accessed and in what order. Offering limitless and random choice can be a disorientating and frustrating experience. A tree structure is often adopted to organise information into a clear hierarchy. Tree structures are composed of key navigational pages known as parent pages with a distinct series of descendant pages. A combination of a tree structure with the looser structure of a network affords the viewer a choice in establishing their own information needs and sense of hierarchy. Html text formatting is more limited than print and therefore the amount and complexity of text-based information needs to be carefully considered in order to maintain clear typographic hierarchies on individual pages. A website doesn’t exist in isolation, it not only has links within itself but extends out and makes connections to other sites. The visitor navigating through various sites is taking a non-linear path. This has led internet commentators and psychologists to suggest that the brain operates in a more associative manner when scanning potentially vast amounts of information. In the programme, The Virtual Revolution: Homo Interneticus, Dr Aleks Krotoski questions whether the web is ‘overloading and distracting our brains’. As with exhibition navigation the amount of time spent with each exhibit or webpage can be fleeting. Some argue that books allow a much deeper interaction with information and a clearer locked down hierarchy. Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound Magazine, goes further and encourages written contributions that offer more detail than their competitors. With the growth of online information and supporting hardware devices such as the I-pad, the future of print publishing is predicted to become niche. Chris Brawn, art director of Sight and Sound, suggested at a recent LCC lecture (17.02.10) that as a publication’s circulation decreases, its membership becomes more specialised and the potential for higher quality production values increases. This suggests that media coexists in a symbiotic relationship rather than one form superseding another. An animated information visualisation of the hierarchy of importance within social network sites can be seen here.

    Broadcast media
    Radio and television programmes typically start with an opening sequence establishing the personality of the programme in much the same way as an introductory web page does or a front cover does with a magazine or book. The key stories forming the programme are outlined in a few sentences at the beginning and act as an equivalent of a contents page with detailed information being expanded upon throughout the programme. The urgency and sense of importance was famously sent up by the programme The Day Today.

    Three-dimensional environments
    Information hierarchy within three-dimensional environments is related to the sequence of information encountered from entry to exit. Museums, department stores and business premises will often employ a directory to inform the visitor where they are in relation to where they want to go. Maps and guides supplement such systems to enable the visitor to gain a permanent view of where they are within a sequence of encounters. The architecture of a building will determine a hierarchy of usage. Once immersed within the three-dimensional information environment, signage in the form of type, directional symbols and informational icons on walls and floors indicate the visitor’s current position within the organised system. Exhibitions will often employ various levels of information hierarchy from main headings to captions enabling a flexible method of navigation.

     
    • John Wallett 12:01 pm on February 21, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      Tony you may already have thought of this but what about doing a book form of some of your blog material? There are a number of fairly dry Information Architecture books around but not I think very much that bridges the gaps between disciplines and has real appeal to a non-geeky readership? Just a thought (actually that could almost be a title!!)

      • Tony Pritchard 12:21 pm on February 21, 2010 Permalink | Reply

        Hi John. Strange you should mention that. This blog is almost a reverse of that. I actually wrote a book called ‘Information Design: Theory and Practice’ some 5 years ago. It was aimed at the undergraduate student but was never published. Now with the advent of blogs I can repurpose the material, update it and put in some fun links. I actually quite like this form of instant publishing. Here I sit on a Sunday morning in my dressing gown publishing from my Mac. I was talking this week at the LCC about the possibility of paper embedded with digital technology so you could have the benefits of paper and print technology as well as interactive and moving image elements. ‘Just a Thought’ sounds a good title for a blog, maybe you ought to snap it up. Do you know of Jonathan Baldwin’s ‘A Word in Your Ear’? I had thought of alternative titles for the book. As you say there is a need to present information in a manner that has broader appeal. I had thought of ‘Making Sense of Understanding’ but whenever I suggested the title I was met with contorted faces suggesting, er…no. Don Norman was nearly seduced by the title ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’ because he liked the acronym POET. He thought better and called it ‘The Design of Everyday Things’. It’s one of my favorite books.

    • John Wallett 12:34 pm on February 21, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      On Understanding (and titles)… this is a little schema I came up with, it’s one of those things that is an oversimplification, therefore simultaneously not true and quite handy.

      I may call it “idz axiom # 1″…

      “information is the use of data
      knowledge is the use of information
      understanding is the use of knowledge
      wisdom is the use of understanding”

      I’m not sure what data is the use of though…

      • Tony Pritchard 12:45 pm on February 21, 2010 Permalink | Reply

        Looks like a poem set like that. The poetry of information design? I think it was Richard Grefe who said ‘information is data in context’. Gerad Mermoz said ‘typography is words in performance’. Is data the use of collected words and numbers?

  • Tony Pritchard 12:23 pm on February 7, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Don Norman, Information Design, Jorge Frascara, usability, user-centred design   

    Users and usability 

    Preface
    I am indebted to the writings of Don Norman. His seminal text The Design of Everyday Things should be essential reading for all designers. Once read you tend to see things differently (conceptual change) and put the needs of the user first. The book has many entertaining examples such as the boot manufacturer who gives away soothing antiseptic cream in the knowledge that they have designed a boot that will scrape the skin off your feet. Why not design a better boot instead? My personal thumbs up to Asics for designing the most comfortable running shoe I have worn. I understand they put more of their budget into the research and development of the primary function of the product. Other manufacturers may spend more on marketing the fashion aspects of the shoe. The excellent exhibition ‘Communicate’ held at the Barbican London in 2005 inadvertently demonstrated a trend (amongst some designers) towards self-obsessed stylists hell-bent on innovations within the aesthetics of visual language. A kind of desperanto (sic). This got design a bad reputation as an elitist occupation producing inconsequential and expensive items. Many labelled the ‘design’ affectations of the 80s and 90s (the non-design style decades) designerisms. Communication should aim to help people understand and use information. Entertainment can be a part of engaging the viewer but it is not the sole purpose. Who is being entertained anyway – other designers? You got the feeling that some designs were focused on inclusion in the next design annual. Design commentator David Sless is concerned over graphic design’s self-obsessed, almost incestuous, appreciation of its own qualities, which ‘valorise individual talent – turning people into heroes.’ As my colleague, Hamish Muir, has stated ‘it’s too easy to criticise without being constructive’. What is past is past and we should look to the future and how we as designers and design educators can improve our practice and as a consequence make the world a better place to live. Let’s be more considerate and think of our fellow users.

    Introduction
    Successful information design relies upon knowledge of the user. A proposed solution should be tested on a sample of intended users and the feedback used to inform the necessary alterations needed to accommodate their needs. The final design will have considered aesthetics, usability, understand-ability and accessibility. The best schemes will monitor subsequent reaction to what has been produced.

    Usability
    Usability is the ease with which something can be used. This is dependent on how easy the experience is to learn; how easy something can be used once learned; how easy the function is to remember; and how easy errors are to rectify.

    User-friendly
    The term user-friendly can be described as the degree to which a product is immediately useful and understandable. Utility can be defined as the extent to which something serves a purpose. Utilitarian design supports the task at hand and affords the user ease of use. The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c80-15BC) suggested that design should be useful, durable and beautiful.

    User-centred information design
    The author Jorge Frascara questions ‘universal aesthetic paradigms’ and suggests the real need is to design for people and that the design of new graphic forms is not an end in itself. Designing information for specific users requires designers to be aware of the following factors: geographic; demographic (gender, age, race, nationality, religion, and marital status); socio-economic (income, occupation, education, class); psycho-cultural (temperamental characteristics, values, goals, individual context, history, expectations, priorities, feelings, preferences and differences); cognitive abilities (effected by environment, age, education, personal skills, occupation). This requires consultation with: sociologists, psychologists, technologists, anthropologists, educational theorists and marketing specialists. Quite a tall order and I don’t know many designers that would go to these lengths. Maybe worth a thought when knocking up the next funky global brand!

    Professional responsibility
    Design has the power to seduce, persuade and cajole. How often do we question the effect of our actions? If consumers are taking legal action against large corporations for not warning them over the dangers of smoking or eating unhealthily, how long before they approach individual designers over their lack of responsibility? We need to be able to detect and understand information in order to act upon it. Graphic designers need to question their motivation as to whether they seek aesthetic innovation or the communication of ideas. Frascara goes further in his assertion that ‘graphic communicators owe to the public the creation of understandable messages…to engage purposefully in the creation of obscure or ambiguous communications is abusive’. A new breed of designers such as David Berman, Lovely as a Tree and Zero Fee are taking on the baton from previous generations (concerned with design’s responsibility) such as Ken Garland (First Things First), David King, Geoff White (profiled in Octavo 2) and Josef Muller-Brockmann.

    Social responsibility
    Designers have a social responsibility to communicate vital information with clarity so that even under unfavourable conditions information may be acted upon. Areas of concern are: access of information for old people, the visually impaired (see ISTD/RNIB Inclusive Design) and people with learning difficulties; the design of safety, medical and warning labels and signs; the design of forms that ensure access to benefits; and the design of instructions.

    Ethical communication
    Communication of information isn’t something that can be imposed; it is reliant upon users’ interaction, interpretation and understanding. Being surrounded by signs and symbols isn’t necessarily an indication of an information age but possibly a saturation of graphics. As Tufte has said: ‘Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design’. Frascara implores designers to view the user’s understanding of information as a paramount concern: ‘…to be understood and not just listened to…[use] the language of the audience in both its style and content…the ideal form of human communication is dialogue’.

    Making life better
    Information Design contributes to improvements in infrastructure such as road signage systems and the design of educational materials. Education and training empowers people to improve through access to information. Frascara suggests that ‘access to information should be regarded as a human right’ and that information designers could ‘build bridges between information and people’. The design of utilitarian items such as bills and forms, underground maps, telephone directories should emphasise access to information with the minimum of fuss.  The information designer aids transparency and clarity and promotes the habit of being well informed. People who are better informed are more able to deal with the complexities of life.

    Visibility and portability
    We can’t memorise everything we see, hear or experience. We need external visual reminders as to how things operate and feedback on actions taken. We all have our individual methods to remind ourselves of future tasks. I-phones have calendars, which can be synced to webmail, and other designated people so you and others can check what you are doing and where you have to be without memorising information. This is something I learnt to my cost in solely keeping a desk diary. I was at a meeting in one location when I was asked whether I was attending another meeting at the same place that day. I replied that I’d have to go back to my office to check!

    Affordance
    Affordances are the ways in which objects imply their use through their physical form, for example a saucer affords a cup or a handle a hand. Information designers need to ensure that the objects and communications they produce for human interaction are understandable and imply how they are to be used.

    Conceptual models, conventions and standards
    A conceptual model is an existing paradigm that is understood by a majority of people. A good example of this would be a car. Once the operations of a car are understood the concept holds true for all cars. Designers should gain knowledge of prevalent cultural conventions that apply to specific users. A typical convention is hot tap left, cold tap right. Taps are also turned anti-clockwise to increase the flow of water. Unless there is a pressing need to change the existing standard a designer shouldn’t challenge the convention just for the sake of being different.

    Mapping
    Mapping is the relationship between two or more things. We understand best when there is a natural mapping between an action and a reaction. Where two light switches are side by side, we expect a left switch to turn on a left light and a right switch to turn on a right light.

    Visual and aural Feedback
    People need feedback to their actions, if they can’t see an effect they deduct nothing has happened and repeat the action. Sound also provides feedback – the microwave bell tells us that our food is ready. At the office beeps and shrill noises signal computer errors.

    Design for error and failure
    User-centred design considers how to minimise confusion and error. A sensitively designed product will guard against anything seriously occurring as a result of an incorrect action. Mistakes will happen and people should not be punished for a lack of comprehension.

    Internal and external information
    An external catalyst often triggers our internal knowledge of something. When information is readily available and exists in accessible form in the world the need to memorise diminishes. In order to travel any great distance we rely on information existing in the world that can be read and understood. We do not rely on memorising a journey but use maps and signs as external reminders.

    Memory
    It is thought that memory only stores partial descriptions of things sufficient to allow for recall at a later stage. Trying to memorise information is not efficient. Memory doesn’t necessarily operate in a structured fashion with ideas neatly filed away for convenient retrieval at a later date. To remind ourselves of key information we transfer information into the external world via diaries, notes, reminders, memos and calendars. Another useful technique is to relate the reminder to a physical event for example placing a book against the door that you want to take with you. You are providing a visual signal to a memory and a message. The message for information designers is not to rely on users’ memory but to provide them with visual prompts.

    Who is the average user?
    Designers are users too, albeit not always typical users.  Designers understand the things they produce and the codes they use, others may not. Unless there is interaction with users, products will only satisfy the designer and their client (who may not be a typical user either). Developing an appreciation of the user from consciously analysing and deconstructing products and communications will enable the student and professional designer to attune themselves to the needs of their fellow human. Don Norman expects his students to visit the homes of the potential users of the products they are producing. The product design company Seymour Powell do exactly this and film users struggling with products. They then show these films to the company directors of the firms producing these products. Design is an activity, which should plan and predict these potential future difficulties before going into production. It is a bit of an eye opener that this doesn’t seem to happen. There is more of an attitude of getting the product out there and fixing it later. Designers should allow a part of the process to monitor the effectiveness of the design once in operation.

    User-centred computer software
    The best programmes are the ones that build on intuition and existing knowledge. The awareness of the computer diminishes and the focus centralises on the user’s individual purpose and not the operating mechanism.

    Make life difficult
    These are some situation where designing for a lack of usability might be an advantage such as security doors and dangerous equipment.

    The anti-usability guidelines
    (After an idea by Don Norman)
    To make life difficult follow these guidelines:
    1 Make the things operating devices invisible
    2 Provide unnatural mappings ie little relationship between operating devices and the things they operate and create randomness.
    3 Make actions difficult
    4 Provide no feedback
    5 Require precision in operation and timing
    6 Allow no room for error or retrieval
    7 Rely on the user’s ability to memorise functions

    References
    The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
    User-centred Graphic Design, Jorge Frascara
    Toothpicks and Logos, John Heskett

     
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