too much information?

This is my favourite road sign.  I like it because it treats me as a sentient human being rather than a mindless drone incapable of independent thought.  It encourages me to consider the possible hazards of my situation and trusts that having so reflected, I will make good decisions.  Were I not barrelling along at 70mph it would also inspire me to muse further on the meaning of life, the universe and everything…

The rarity of such ‘thoughtful’ road signs makes me wonder why few communications assume an intelligent audience.  Too much ‘telling’ surely eventually breeds disinterest.  On the roads we all see plenty of poorly regulated over-signing: badly placed, ugly ‘street furniture’ laden with overly instructive signs, sometimes there (it would seem) as much to prevent the local council from being sued as to actually help the public.  Credible research now shows that careful removal of oversignage increases road safety.  De-signing can be good designing.  As in most areas of communication design, consideration of the user and limiting the number of messages to be processed increases the likehood of effectiveness.  More thoughtful communications crediting users with some intelligence would be no bad thing.

Why does over-instruction, clutter and chaos so often win out over clarity?  Is it ‘over-designing’?  That term suggests designers are complicit, but absence of design sensibility is a more likely cause.  An understandable client anxiety for effectiveness often asks that every point be hammered home (then further secured with a bit of extra hammering, before being painted over with several coats of Hammerite. Just to be sure).

It can happen with any communication.  Take your local pizza takeaway’s flyer for example: each statement on it is treated as if it were the most important; each heading more luridly coloured and in a more shouty typeface than the last; repetition and redundancy abound to make sure we get the message – but we don’t.  It is trying/’telling’ far too hard.  The visual cacophony is hard work to read, nothing is clear, nothing is memorable, nothing distinctive.  Unless you really, really like your pizza, this is going in the bin.

You are more likely to encounter ‘thoughtful’ communication in a context where the audience is assumed to be intelligent: the art gallery, the expensive restaurant.  Time is also a factor.  In such environments you are also assumed to be at your leisure, allowing the possibility of the enjoyment of space, ambiguity and diversion as part of your user experience.

Is this approach to design only appropriate in such obvious contexts?  In general design practise the more visual and verbal information you can take away, the greater the chance your audience might remember what remains.  ‘Designer minimalism’ is not just about looking cool, it is about editing down content and crediting an audience with the intelligence to understand.

Are broader audiences ‘talked down to’ by default?  Do graphic designers sometimes unthinkingly patronise consumers/users in their work? How do we strike the right balance of ‘room for thought’ vs. over-instruction?  A few suggestions for things to consider for starters:

Know your audience – who are they?  How much time have they got?  Are you ‘preaching to the converted’ – or trying to persuade?

• Clarify the message – what’s the point of the piece?  To communicate a broad value?  Show a trend?  Make a comparison? – Make data available? – or to literally give instruction?

• Include only necessary information – but make every detail count. Avoid aimless decoration.

• Avoid content redundancy – say it once, but clearly.  Repetition reduces impact.

There is a school of thought that all designers are elitist and patronising by nature, but plenty of us would like to see the benefits of good design made available to everyone.  Stupid-proofing may be a concern, but it should not always be the only one.  Instead of allowing our work to be packed with information, let’s try to leave more out – and make more room for users to engage in the communication…

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