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Designing better documents: information design professionals attempt to understand what makes documents usable and to apply that knowledge in preparing functional documents and records.

At the Core

This article:

* Defines information design

* Shows how information design practices enhance information assets

* Clarifies the relationships between information management, information architecture, and information design

The focus on readers of information products is at the heart of a growing discipline called information design. This focus is increasingly essential because, as the quantity of information grows (according to some estimates, the volume of content now doubles every two years), people increasingly ignore it or read it too quickly to accurately follow it. For example, although tens of thousands of books were published in the United States alone last year, some studies estimate that only 6 percent of the American population reads an entire book during the year. (Certainly a larger percentage bought books, but few actually read them.) Similarly, in the world of direct-mail advertising (junk mail), acceptable response rates (that is, the percentage of people who respond to the mailing) have over time fallen from 50 percent who responded to a first direct mailing to 1.5 percent responding in the 1990s to 0.5 percent responding today.

Several experts, including Richard Saul Wurman, have discussed the problem of overloaded readers who ignore information. The growth of the Internet, in fact, has only exacerbated the problem. Merely publishing information no longer guarantees the desired results. And it is critical that some types of information--insurance forms, tax forms, and medical information--are read accurately. Such information must be prepared in a way that simplifies and facilitates the reading process.

This concern for simplifying and easing functional documentation has spawned a number of efforts to first understand what makes documents usable and, second, to apply that knowledge to preparing functional documents and records. That is the purpose underlying the embryonic field of information design.

Information Design Defined

Professionals in information management and information design share many interests. Both are concerned about providing information in such an optimal way that organizations can achieve their business goals. Both recognize that information is essential to any successful business strategy. Both also acknowledge the growing glut of information; they work to find ways to reduce its excesses and help readers wade through it. Finally, both realize that technology can assist in these efforts.

They differ, however, in the scope of their efforts. Information designers focus on the design and publication of individual documents or groups of related documents. For example, an information designer might focus on an individual manual for a word processing software package or the entire library of manuals for a particular word processor. In contrast, information managers focus on information across the entire enterprise. For example, an information management professional might be concerned with the inventory of all the manuals published by the organization--internally and externally--not just the word processing manuals, but also the frequently asked questions (FAQs) and users' guides published by the information systems group, the process manuals published by the administrative services group, and the personnel manuals published by human resources.

Information design is also poorly distinguished from other concepts, including document design and information architecture. Although all three have overlapping interests, document designers focus primarily on the appearance and navigability of documents--that is, how quickly readers can reach information they want or need. Information architecture professionals focus primarily on the structure of content, especially complex Web sites. Confusing matters, however, is that these two terms often are used interchangeably with information design.

Information design represents a focus on the fusion of content, structure, and appearance of documents. As with most emerging fields, no single, generally accepted definition of information design exists. Indeed, each of the definitions that do exist seems to represent the background of its author. Some information designers come from an architecture background; they tend to focus on structure. Some information designers come from a background in graphic design and focus on aesthetics, concentrating on the most-effective use of typography and layout. Those with a background in instructional design; usually focus on targeting the right content for the intended audience. Some come from a background in technical communication; they often focus on the usability of the text and the ease with which readers can scan it. Finally, those who come from the field of usability focus on applying the heuristics of the way people read to the design of content and the visual cues to which readers respond, especially on the Web.

In reality, good information design represents a fusion of all these perspectives. The preferred definition of information design is: "Preparing communication products so that they achieve the performance objectives established for them." This involves

1. analyzing communication problems

2. establishing performance objectives that, when achieved, address these objectives

3. developing a blueprint for a communication effort to address those objectives

4. developing the components of the planned communication effort solution

5. evaluating the ultimate effectiveness of the effort

Some of the terms in this definition have specific meanings:

* Performance objectives are observable, measurable tasks and business goals that users should be able to perform, as well as the conditions for doing those tasks and the level of acceptable work, according to Robert Mager's 1997 book, Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction.

* A blueprint is a detailed design plan for a document or group of related documents that indicates the overall structure and interrelationships of the documents (like the site plan used by architects), the structure of individual documents (like the floor plans used by architects), sample sections (like models of proposed buildings), storyboards (like elevations used by architects), and editorial and technical guidelines (like the plans for architectural details, such as electrical and plumbing).

* Evaluation is a detailed plan for assessing the effectiveness of documents from a number of perspectives. These perspectives include reader satisfaction with the document, the ability of readers to comprehend the intended information, and the tangible effect that readers' success has on the organization that published the document.

In short, good information design focuses on readers--it takes a "you" perspective toward content. An information designer is only successful when readers can perform the intended tasks associated with a document. Achieving this result requires that information designers clearly identify their purpose and audience beforehand and identify the context in which content will be communicated. They must choose the right information, present it in an accessible structure, and format it so that readers can effortlessly find and comprehend the material in the situation in which they will be using it. For example, if readers will be using a document in a physically tight space, the designer must design a document that can fit into it. Finally, readers must feel compelled to perform the intended tasks.

The first example, on this page, is typical of most institutional communication. It lacks visual appeal, its language is inhospitable, and, most significantly, its content is difficult (if not impossible) to interpret.

The second example, on page 45, offers a more usable version of the content. The use of headings helps readers quickly distinguish among the parts of the policy. The use of short paragraphs and lists enables readers to quickly scan the policy both for general content and for specific points of interest. The use of white space, sharp typography, and other visual elements make the page easier to read. The use of clear language increases the likelihood that readers will properly comprehend the material.

More bluntly, the first example seems to be developed from a "me" perspective. That is, the author seems to have documented the policy with minimal concern about others implementing it. The second example is developed from the "you" perspective. That is, the author appears to have documented the policy with the intention of making it easy for others--the readers--to read and implement.

Information Design Emerges

The publication of a number of books in recent years has raised the profile of information design. Wurman's 1996 Information Architects showed numerous examples of effectively designed printed documents intended to increase readers' productivity. For example, Wurman comments that his SmartPages (his redesign of the Yellow Pages for Pacific Bell) led to all increase in reader productivity that led to higher results for the advertisers and publisher. Rosenfeld and Morville's Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, introduced in 1997 just as the Internet hit critical mass, provides a structure for approaching the work of the newly emerging profession of Web designers. Robert Jacobsen's 1999 Information Design is the first academic effort to explore many of the issues underlying effective design and the many disciplines that contribute to it.

The roots of information design, however, emerged several decades ago. Some of the earliest interest ill the field began with the "plain language" movement of the 1960s. This grassroots movement arose from the complaints of fed-up insurance customers. People would file claims only to learn that they were not insured because of all incomprehensible passage in the policy or a disclaimer ill the "fine print"--so called because the type was so small as to be unreadable with the naked eye. This ultimately led to a number of plain language laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s which stated that insurance policies must be written to a seventh-grade reading level (the level assumed to be understood by most of the reading public).

When Jimmy Carter became president of the United States in 1977, he issued an executive order declaring that all government documents be written in plain language. Because people did not fully understand what made a good plain-language document, the government also funded groundbreaking research into what made effective design. This research was conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), assisted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. The result of their work was Guidelines for Document Design, published in 1981. Although the guidelines encompassed both the design of the content as well as its presentation, the lessons that most people retained from them pertained to the presentation of content. These lessons taught the need for

* retrievability aids such as tables of contents and running headers and footers

* optimal indices for finding content

* headings, lists, and charts

* white space

* appropriate typography, including fonts that help readers skim documents

* clear language

* visuals in readability and comprehension

According to Karen Schriver's book, Dynamics of Document Design, one of the reasons that people paid scant attention to these issues in functional documents is that low budgets made these visual cues prohibitively expensive to prepare. But the rise of desktop publishing and laser printers, coming soon after the publication of the guidelines, made implementation of these suggestions affordable for organizations working with the tightest of budgets.

The growth of personal computer use added to the interest, because the documentation was proving to be a key selling point, especially after Calico's Adam home computer failed because of its poor documentation. Researchers like IBM's John Carroll noted a major flaw in most computer documentation: It told readers everything when they needed only the most basic instructions, a concept that Carroll named "minimalism."

As these developments occurred in North America under the name document design, a parallel movement occurred in Europe under the name information design. The European community, primarily in Great Britain and the Netherlands, explored issues similar to those in the American community and started its own Journal of Information Design.

The rise of online communication that began in the late 1980s and accelerated with the emergence of the Internet significantly increased interest in information design because authors were concerned about the most effective way to communicate through this new medium. Although specific areas of interest were broad, different disciplines took the lead in exploring different issues.

Architects and library scientists focused on information sprawl--Web sites whose structures were so arcane that readers could not find topics of interest within a few clicks.

Usability experts focused on design characteristics that promoted speed and accuracy in using Web sites, effectiveness in performing tasks, and satisfaction with the overall online experience.

Graphic designers focused on visual devices that would grab and hold the attention of readers and encourage them to remain at a site.

Illustrators explored the visual possibilities of online communication, looking for ways to represent quantitative information visually (a movement that began long before the Web but was accelerated by the popularity of spreadsheets), as well as ways to replace text with pictures.

Instructional designers focused on the issues that promoted an engaging learning experience that people could complete successfully.

Communicators focused on writing techniques that responded to reading patterns online that differ from those in print (for example, readers typically read online at only 75 percent of their speed in print, and accuracy of online reading is lower).

Project managers in all of these fields advocated a sophisticated process for the development of information--rivaling the software development process in its complexity. Believing that the best content results from an effective process in which key questions are considered at appropriate junctures, the process begins with an analysis that results in the identification of goals (requirements) and continues with the development of designs that fulfill these goals. Next, content is developed according to the designs, published and, last, the effectiveness of the content is evaluated. Rosenfeld and Morville's book advocates processes based on this general approach; these were implemented by the thought leaders of the dot-com years, such as iXL and Sapient.

Information Design Strategies

Information designers ultimately take a holistic approach toward the design and development of documents. They look at them from three different perspectives:

1. Physical design--can readers find the information they are looking for?

2. Cognitive design--can readers understand the information they are looking for?

3. Affective design--how do readers emotionally respond to the information?

The focus of physical design is helping readers find the information they seek as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Issues that designers consider at this level include

* Placement: Certain spots on pages and screens are more likely to be noticed than others. For example, information designers have learned through research that readers immediately cue into the center of the screen and few scroll down on a home page.

* Typography: The choice of type creates a mood for a document and affects its readability, according to Kostelnick and Roberts' Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators.

* Headings: Headings visually communicate the overall structure of a document to readers and help them find sections of interest.

* Navigation: Devices like site maps, forward and backward buttons, links, tables of contents, headings that run along the top or bottom of pages (running headers and footers), and indices help readers find content and keep track of their location.

* Length: Readers have limited attention spans for functional content, and information designers need to work within those limitations when planning documents.

The focus of cognitive (intellectual) design is helping readers comprehend content. Generally, cognitive design focuses on the design process because asking certain questions at particular phases of the design process better ensures that the information designer properly identifies the readers, the tasks they need to perform, and the context in which they are working.

Another concern of cognitive design is setting clear objectives for a document and using them to guide the selection of content. For example, in the initial analysis a designer might determine that a document is intended to instruct users on how to install and use a particular piece of software. But a marketing manager might later say that the document needs to be used in the sales effort. The document would work at cross-purposes since the type of content needed by these two audiences would conflict. A reader only considering a purchase is not ready for detailed instructions on how to perform everyday tasks with it. Similarly, visual communication strategies would differ: Readers who have not yet purchased software are more effectively persuaded by photographs and other high-quality images, while readers who intend to use instructions are more effectively guided by line drawings.

Lessons from cognitive psychology, therefore, must underlie the selection and presentation of content. As another example, one concern of information designers is avoiding information overload. They often must explain how to perform complex tasks that readers rarely perform. In such cases, rather than write a complex procedure, information designers might instead prepare a wizard, a type of software that performs most of the tasks automatically.

Affective design focuses on the emotional impact of information. The emotional impact can occur on a number of levels. At one level, it is motivating readers to pick up and read a document. The fields of advertising and game design have influenced this design aspect, with advertising's emphasis on alluring visuals and simple, strong messages, and games' design features that encourage interaction.

Communicating across cultures is a broad issue in affective design. Although many professionals primarily focus on the issues of translation to other languages and localizing content for other markets (tailoring examples so that they reflect people and customs in a given geography), the issue is actually much broader. It might, for example, encompass the cultural implications of color (for example, Westerners prefer the color white for weddings while those in the Indian culture prefer red), the mismatch of terminology among different professional cultures, and the subtleties of organizational cultures within various businesses.

Yet another interest in affective design is the political fallout of messages. By anticipating possible misinterpretations of messages, designers can either reshape the message (if appropriate) or be prepared with action plans should a worst-case interpretation unfold.

Information Design and RIM

On a theoretical level, Robert Meagher said in his 2002 article, "The IM Building Blocks," The enterprise-wide view of information management interlocks nicely with the product-level (individual document) view of the information design professional.

On a practical level, information design affects a number of the issues about which information management professionals are concerned. The first is the design of individual projects that have organization-wide implications. Inconsistencies among similar communication products always jar readers, but such discrepancies are not as noticeable when the information is published in separate printed volumes.

In contrast, these jarring inconsistencies are extremely noticeable online, especially where a reader may see two clashing Web pages on the same Web site. To the reader, the pages should appear as if they were published by one organization, but one page might have been prepared half a world away from the second. These inconsistencies may be visual (such as different placement of buttons) or may be substantive (content that disagrees internally). Information management professionals may be asked--and should be able to respond--to readers' concerns.

A second issue is the growth of reusable content. As the use of knowledge management and content management software grows, organizations can develop inventories of content and, if appropriate, use a piece of information developed for one purpose in a different situation. For example, an organization might have an employee information section on each form it publishes. Rather than re-designing this information for every form issued by the organization, someone can design this information block, catalog it, and inform other internal forms designers about it so it can be reused in every form published by the organization.

These systems can also maintain reader profiles. When a given reader asks to see a document, rather than providing the entire document, the system can personalize it to the needs and interests of that reader. Guided by the profile, the system would choose particular sections of interest to the reader, tailor examples to the readers' needs, and omit other sections for which a particular reader has no need. Although the technology exists for this range of use, the skills for designing content so that it can be stored in chunks and presented in a personalized way are significantly different from those for designing content intended to be read from beginning to end. Such skills are in short supply.

A third issue is standards related to reusable content. Standards are software guidelines that simplify the exchange of information among users and organizations. Standards fall into several categories.

* Interoperability: enables use of content produced on one system to be used on other systems. The standards for hypertext markup language (HTML) and extensible markup language (XML), which are used to describe content presented on the Web, fall into this category. The biggest challenge for interoperability is in e-learning. Standards are being designed to allow organizations to exchange test questions and scores, in addition to learning content. These standards affect the choice of software that information designers use to create content as well as the way in which they prepare it.

* Findability: helps readers easily find content on the Web through the use of naming conventions. As the Dewey Decimal system standardized library classification, so standards like the Dublin Core identify standard sets of keywords included with Web-based content to help people easily find content of interest. These information representation features would feed into the semantic Web, another effort to promote findability.

* Usability: ensures that information is accessible to all. The standards in this category are primarily focused on making the Web accessible to people with disabilities, as dictated by Section 508, a federal guideline that extends the Americans with Disabilities Act to Web content. These standards affect the way that information designers prepare content. All Web sites designed for use by the U.S. government must comply with the standard. For example, to make content accessible to people with hearing disabilities, information designers provide a complete transcription of narration on Web sites.

* Technology: to make information widely accessible within organizations, some organizations are purchasing complex software such as knowledge management, content management, and learning management systems. To prepare content, organizations are making similar investments in authoring technology, such as Web development tools, multimedia software, and course development software. The software systems that are chosen ultimately affect the type of content that an organization makes available, the way the content looks, and the ease with which people can develop and change it. The ideal software for information management might be at odds with the ideal software for information design. Ultimately, the best choice is one that balances the two needs. This will require a cross-disciplinary effort.

* Information security: Although the focus of information design is making information easily accessible and understandable, some information is intended for restricted audiences. One of the key concerns of information management is making sure that only those with a need to know have access to specific content.

* Legal implications of information: Although professionals in both fields share an interest in the legal implications of content, information management professionals are more likely to be called in to a case to provide an audit trail of the content. As a result, the discussions of legal implications of information design are more thoroughly developed in the field of information management.

Although these standards have not yet reached full implementation, ultimately, they will affect the way that information designers classify content.


Compact But Unclear

1. The Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Committee consists of Vice President for Student and Administrative Services, ex officio, Dean of Faculty, ex officio, Dean of Student Affairs, ex officio, Vice President for Marketing, Communication and Enrollment, ex officio, Three Senators appointed by the Faculty Senate, Six (6) faculty members elected by the General Faculty, one student appointed by the Academic Affairs Board of the Student Government Association.

2. The elected members must hold academic rank and are elected for a term of three years.

3. The student member shall have the right to vote.

4. The Committee shall elect two members of the Student Affairs Committee to serve on the Judicial Board (Section for staggered terms of two years which shall not exceed the member's elected term on the Student Affairs Committee.

5. The Committee will elect one member to serve on the Student and Administrative Services Committee of the Board of Trustees (Section

6. While all ex officio members are welcome at all meetings, the Chair shall clearly indicate in the call to each meeting the agenda to be discussed so that ex officio members shall know when it is necessary for them to attend.

7. The duties of the committee are Participate in the formulation of College policies on extracurricular activities including class organization, athletics, clubs, fraternities, sororities, and all other student organizations and activities; Consider suggestions and complaints of students pertaining to extracurricular matters referred to the Committee when no other channel exists to deal with these matters; participate in the formulation of admission policies such as recruiting, standards of admission, and selection of candidates; receive reports from the Vice President of Student and Administrative Services on student affairs issues and the Vice President for Marketing, Communication and Enrollment on the current student enrollment. The Committee will screen the reports, retrieve information on the academic impact of these reports, and take appropriate action; participate in the activities of the Academic Honesty Board (Section, Academic Performance Committee (Section and the Judicial Board (Section


Longer, But Clearer and Easier to Implement

1. Purpose (also stated in section 1.3.2):

* Establish programs that provide students with opportunities to acquire and apply skills that facilitate their personal, social, cultural, and physical growth and development.

* Conduct developmental learning programs and provide educational and personal counseling.

* Assist students in developing a greater awareness of their responsibility within the College community through involvement in campus governance and through endorsement of, and compliance with, community standards and beliefs.

* Conduct the research and evaluation program within the Office of Student Affairs that provides information regarding the characteristics, perceptions, and needs of present and prospective Bentley students.

2. Membership. The Student Affairs Committee consists of representatives from several different groups:

* The following members serve in an ex-officio capacity:

- Vice President for Student and Administrative Services

- Dean of Faculty

- Dean of Student Affairs

- Vice President for Marketing, Communication and Enrollment

Note: While all ex officio members are welcome at all meetings, the Chair shall clearly indicate in the call to each meeting the agenda to be discussed so that ex officio members shall know when it is necessary for them to attend.

* Voting members, who include:

- Three (3) Senators appointed by the Faculty Senate

- Six (6) faculty members elected by the General Faculty

- One (1) student appointed by the Academic Affairs Board of the Student Government Association.


* Other than the student, all elected members must hold academic rank and are elected for terms of three years.

* The Student is appointed each year.

* The student member shall have the right to vote.

3. Representation from the Student Affairs Committee on other College and Trustee's Committees. The Student Activities Committee shall:

* Elect two (2) representatives to serve on the Judicial Board (Section

* Each is elected to a two-year term. The terms are staggered, so that one representative is elected in an even-numbered year and another representative is elected in an odd-numbered year. Note, however, that the term cannot exceed the representative's elected term on the Student Affairs Committee.

* Elect one (1) member to serve on the Student and Administrative Services Committee of the Board of Trustees (Section

4 Other Responsibilities of the Committee:

a. Form College policies on extracurricular activities, such as class organizations, athletics, clubs, fraternities, and sororities.

b. Consider suggestions and complaints about extracurricular activities from students, when no other channel or committee in the College is able to deal with these matters.

c. Form admission policies such as recruiting, standards of admission, and selection of candidates;

d. Receive reports from the Vice President of Student and Administrative Services on student affairs issues and the Vice President for Marketing, Communication and Enrollment on the current student enrollment. The Committee will screen the reports, assess the academic impact of these information in these reports (including performing additional research, if needed), and take action if appropriate.

e. As needed, coordinate activities with the Academic Honesty Board (Section, Academic Performance Committee (Section and the Judicial Board (Section


Felker, D. B., F. Pickering, V.R. Charrow, V.M. Holland, and J.C. Redish. "Guidelines for Document Designers." Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research, 1981.

Jacobson, Robert. "Introduction: Why Information Design Matters" In Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Kostelnick, Charles, and David D. Roberts. Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.

Kostur, Pamela. "Developing Single-Source Documentation." International Professional Communication Conference. New Orleans, Louisiana. 10 September 1999.

Mager, Robert. Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction, 3rd ed. Atlanta: Center for Effective Performance Inc., 1997.

Meagher, Robert. "The IM Building Blocks." The Information Management Journal, January/February 2002.

Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information Architecture for the Worldwide Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1997.

Schriver, Karen. Dynamics of Document Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Wurman, Richard Saul. Information Anxiety: What to Do When Information Doesn't Tell You What You Need to Know. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

--. Information Architects. Zurich: Graphis Press, 1996.


Albers, Michael, and Beth Mazur, eds. Content and Complexity: The Role of Content in Information Design. Mahwah, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

American Institute for Graphic Arts. Available at (accessed 3 June 2002).

Carliner, Saul. "Business Objectives: A Key Tool for Demonstrating the Value of Technical Communication Products." Technical Communication, 1998.

--. "Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Framework for Information Design." Technical Communication, 2000.

InfoDesign. Available at (accessed 3 June 2002).

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Special Interest Group on Information Design of the Society for Technical Communication. Available at (accessed 3 June 2002).

Saul Carliner is a professor, author, teacher, and consultant in the field of information design. He is author of An Overview of Online Learning and the forthcoming Designing E-Learning (American Society for Training and Development Press 2002), and 101 Ideas for E-Learning (Jossey-Bass 2003). He may be reached at
COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Carliner, Saul
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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