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DYNAMICS IN DOCUMENT DESIGN: CREATING TEXT FOR READERS
This is a substantial piece of work produced by someone who feels passionately about document design--both as a functional and aesthetic activity, and as an under-rated profession. Karen Schriver has a lot of experience and plenty to say. The book is structured so as to place the whole business of information design in a historical and political context.
The first two chapters deal with defining document design and showing how it has evolved from the nineteenth century to the present. This is followed by a chronological map of graphic design as a profession in the context of education, science, and technological developments in the twentieth century. The next four chapters deal with how readers perceive and react to information, as well as offering theories of typography and layout. Finally, there is a major section on how designers can learn from user feedback, a superb twenty-one page bibliography, two indices (author and subject) and a very interesting appendix discussing the use of common typographic symbols.
Schriver takes a reader-centered as opposed to a 'product-focused' approach. Any design solutions are only acceptable insofar as they assist the reader's understanding. [I'll bet she's no fan of the Emigre typographers.] In this respect she might have given more emphasis to the subtitle of her book (which only appears on the title page) 'Creating Text for Readers'.
The problem is that for the majority of five hundred-plus pages we are bombarded with too much on the process of her investigations rather than her results. There's a great deal on 'how the research was conducted' and 'what we found out about users' response to the data'. This approach might be suitable for academic research papers but it seems out of place here, even though some of the readers' responses to Web screens were interesting. (The lesson is--keep it simple, make it readable, give plenty of information.)
For instance, Schriver discusses the problems of establishing academic respectability for writing as a discipline--which has less to do with document design than with the sociology of a profession. Then in her chapter on the history of design in the twentieth century she goes into the details of plain language campaigns in the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia--plus the 'History of the Mechanical Pencil'. All of this is reasonably interesting, but it's a long way from a book that is intended for 'the writers and graphic designers who create the many types of documents people use every day'.
The fundamental problem seems to be that the book is trying to do two things at the same time. It's offering an academic study of communication theory as well as a practical guide to good design. (The majority of the abstractly titled second chapter--'Evolution of the Field: Contextual Dynamics'--could be placed directly in an academic journal on the history of education in the USA.) Sometimes these two objectives work against each other. For instance, Schriver gives a lengthy account of research into teenagers' responses to drug-prevention brochures, revealing how political correctness and naiveté in their design makes them ineffective. But one glance at the examples by anyone with an ounce of wit would reveal the same as fifty-six laboured pages of research and analysis.
Schriver also devotes forty pages to the difficulties of linking two VCRs and a TV by following the manufacturer's instructions. The problems of such tightly printed instructions--which I think we all know--are elaborated at the expense of solutions. It's not really clear which group of readers would need an extended account of grappling with poor instruction manuals. Most of the book's readers will want advice on design that is more effective and efficient.
Schriver becomes more instructive when she arrives at a chapter on typography and the use of space in good document design. However, a case study on the appropriateness and legibility of type is preceded by twelve pages describing its research conditions before we reach the results. When she introduces the application of Gestalt psychology to perceptions of visually presented information, we seem to be due for profound revelations, but instead we're taken straight back into the realm of the obvious. Yes--those mobile phone instruction leaflets are badly designed. Schriver spends ten pages describing a problem which a good graphic designer such as Robert Parker would show you in one.
She even finishes by describing the design of her own book. It's an elegant production, but this sort of thing is self-indulgent, and it isn't helped by language which is often trying harder to be impressive than to communicate clearly. "I present a ten-stage iterative heuristic for structuring content" isn't exactly reader-friendly writing, is it?
Her overall argument is that designers must pay attention to readers' needs--both for the sake of the reader and the successful outcome of design. When designing documents for general public consumption, the writing should be very simple, the diagrams clear, and all stages in any process clearly distinguished. All this is worthy and good. If only she had followed her own advice, and hadn't spent such enormous amounts of effort proving what seems rather obvious.
This is a piece of work that I suspect is bidding to become a standard text. On the strength of its research, it may well succeed; but busy writers and designers will probably want advice that is more succinct. They don't have time to be reading 500 page manuals. However, I'm sure it will find its way into the library of any institution which pretends to teach the principles of good written communication.
This review originally appeared at the Clifton Press website © 1998 R. Johnson.
Dr. Roy Johnson is the author of a number of books on writing, study skills, and computer technology. He's the director of Clifton Press and the editor of "Writing & Computers"
Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers