How to make your short report more interesting

stephanie everygreenToday I thought I’d share this blog post from Stephanie Evergreen. She has a business (and a great blog) where she teaches people how to display information in meaningful ways.

This particular post is about short reports. We develop a lot of these at my workplace and we try to make them as interesting as possible, but I’m not sure that they always hit the mark.

Check out Stephanie’s advice and see what you think.

 

The opposite of simple

Many people think that simplicity and complexity are natural opposites, but nothing could be further from the truth. You can express  very complex ideas in ways that most people can understand if you make your explanations clear enough. You don’t need to dumb down your ideas to make them understandable, you just need to present your ideas in a logical order that people can follow and use examples that people understand and are familiar with.

The opposite of simple is disorganised

When ideas are poorly organised, they look jumbled and confusing. Things can seem a lot more complicated than they really are. Think of a drawer full of stationery all mixed in together. It’s hard to know what’s in there, let alone find the pen you really need. It’s the same with ideas. When they are organised in a sensible way, people feel calmer and are able to absorb ideas more easily.

Use headings to get your ideas in the right order

Getting your ideas sorted into a sequence that makes sense is perhaps the hardest part of writing a document or developing a presentation, but it’s the most crucial step. I suggest drafting a high level plan before you start writing, so that you can get your ideas in order first. This will make the writing easier as you will already have your headings and you wont need to sit there thinking about what to write next.

Try it next time you embark on a new project and let me know how it goes.

 

Instructions for life

 

Like many people, I am a bit of a sucker for reading ‘Instructions for life’. You know the kind of thing I am talking about. They usually include things like being kind to yourself, trying new things and being kind to others. The other day I read a list which included having some lemony water every morning before breakfast. I’m not sure exactly what that does to your body, but I’m guessing it wakes up your mouth.

 

Instructions are very appealing. Just being called ‘instructions’ gives them a level of importance and authority. They are much more impressive than mere suggestions . The underlying message is that you just need to do exactly as you are told and all will be well.

 

So I was quite puzzled by the instructions printed on a new garment I purchased today, which read “Think climate cold wash and line dry”.  I misinterpreted this to mean that in a cold climate, one should wash and line dry the item, when of course it was actually an instruction to use cold water and a washing line instead of using hot water and a dryer.

 

I know that not many people would have misread this instruction, but it did make me laugh when I realised my mistake. I also know that a simple hyphen would probably have helped.

 

 

 

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What skills does an information designer need?

All of the people in my family are quite good at criticising other people, and that includes me.

It’s not our intention to be mean, we are just really good at noticing things. We’re especially good at pointing out spelling errors and the misuse of words.

The downside of this is that my comments can sound a bit harsh, especially when I am marking assignments or reviewing the design of a website which someone has been lovingly creating.

This happened to me at work last week. I was so busy giving the person good advice (to be fair, they did ask me for my honest feedback)that I forgot to be sensitive to the fact that few of us can really tolerate criticism unless it is delivered with gentleness.

I’m often asked to review or comment on other people’s work and I try to remember that my job is to help people improve their work, rather than leaving them feeling like it has been chopped to pieces. But sometimes I fail and I need to work on this.

So while designers need to know about typography, colours, fonts, visual hierarchy and plain English, they also need to be good communicators and that’s a skill that requires endless practice.

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What is information design?

I’ve recently discovered that nearly everything I’m interested in can be captured under the title of ‘INFORMATION DESIGN’. Apparently this is now recognised as a field of knowledge in its own right.

Why is this exciting?

It’s a bit hard to explain. It’s the same feeling you get when you have a mystery ailment – an odd collection of symptoms that seem to have no connection – and you discover that this is actually has a name, for example, arachibutyrophobia (the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth). It’s oddly comforting to find that something has a name. It makes it more legitimate somehow.

Three reasons to celebrate

I like the fact that information design is a recognised field for three reasons:

  1. I am interested in a lot of different areas and it pleases me that these are all connected and that I am not just finding it hard to concentrate.
  2. It means that there are a number of good books on the topic that I can read and learn from.
  3. It means that there are conferences and websites where people exchange ideas about this very interesting topic.

What do information designers do?

Information designers turn complicated concepts into things that are less confusing and easier to comprehend. They help people get things done. They design forms that people find easy to complete, they write clear instructions for new products, they help people find their way around shopping centres and universities.

They also design:

  • Websites
  • Maps
  • Reports
  • Slides
  • Signs
  • Packaging
  • Menus
  • Infographics

 Why does it matter?

If you are trying to find out how your new coffee machine works and the instructions aren’t very clear, it’s hardly a life threatening situation, but it can be annoying. If you are trying to find the entrance to the emergency centre at your local hospital and the signs aren’t clear, it could actually be a matter of life and death. What both scenarios have in common is that they leave us feeling confused and anxious and we often blame ourselves for our failure to understand. We shouldn’t do this because more often than not, the problem is that the information itself is poorly designed.

People come first

Information design matters because it puts the focus on the people who are going to use the information, not on the information itself.

I think it’s a fascinating field and over the next few months I’m planning to learn as much as I can and extend my skills.

I hope you will share my journey.

 

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More confusion

Apparently I confused more than one reader when the sign I discussed in my last post didn’t actually show up in the message. This is apparently a function of the blog software which I use  so I have learnt something from that exercise.

Here is the photo of the speeding sign for those of you who missed it.

Must we really drive too fast?

Must we really drive too fast?

Here’s another sign I found very amusing.

Screen shot 2013-09-22 at 8.37.44 PMHave a great week!

 

 

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Confusing signs

On our recent trip we were  amused by this road sign exhorting us to drive as quickly as we could.

You sometimes wonder who on earth writes these signs and whether or not anyone actually reads them before they go on display. In this instance I think that most people would work out what the real message was, but sometimes poor signs can have disastrous consequences.

This infographic from the Guardian shows that many people in Britain are more than a little confused about what the various road safety signs actually mean, and I think this would be the case in most countries.

Confusion corner

What makes a good sign?

As with most things, typography is important. The font used in all British road signs was developed specifically for that purpose and is designed to be legible at a distance. Not only does the type have to be very clear (no serifs or curly bits required thank you), but the spacing between the letters needs to be exactly right. Adjusting the spacing between the letters is called kerning.

Diagrams need to be as unambiguous as possible. If you are designing a sign or instructions of any kind you need to make sure that you test them out on as many people as possible to make sure that they are not misinterpreted. In your focus group you should include older and younger people and people from as wide a range of cultural backgrounds as possible.

Your sign needs to contain the minimum amount of information required to make it meaningful and the colours need to be chosen to allow for conditions such as colour-blindness.

I know that not all of you spend your days designing signage, but the same rules apply if you are making instructions for how to get to your house, or how to use the photocopying machine at work. These are not necessarily matters of life and death but people appreciate clarity and will be grateful if you make the effort.

Here is my favourite example of an hilarious sign…

Do not read

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