By Liezl van Zyl

3 document design truths

We admit it. We're bookworms! Get academic with us and find out why we love what we do!
A stack of pink books
If you are anything like us, you get really excited about document and information design innovations. We love having research and development sessions to discuss the latest trends from around the world. And why shouldn’t we? There are lots of cool things happening out there: from developments in design thinking, user experience, and graphic design, to integrating technology. It is easy to get caught up in looking ahead and trying to be innovative any chance you get. But occasionally, it’s good to get a little academic and rediscover the work that got the world excited about information design.

As information designers, we deal with the redesign of documents every day. We get our hands dirty with graphics, user experience and language. Recently, however, I was forced to go back and look at the seminal texts of document design for my PhD-thesis. Although I had read these texts when I first started studying document design, those days seem like a distant memory to me now. I remember thinking that these texts were pretty vague, and I couldn’t quite think of it applying to anything pragmatic. Reading these texts now, however, made me realise how important, and relevant, they are.

In “Document Design from 1980 to 1990: Challenges that Remain”, Karen Schriver (long may she reign) describes document design as “… the theory, research and practice of creating comprehensible, usable and persuasive texts”. She describes the uniqueness and fluidity of document design:

“Document design as a practice is not tied to particular text genres, particular audiences, particular subject matters, or particular text purposes. It is a highly constructive activity in which building an adequate representation of a communication problem demands careful analysis of the unique features of the given rhetorical situation. Thus, while knowing about particular text genres, audiences, subject matters, and purposes can be helpful, such knowledge is often a limited and even inhibiting starting point. In fact, if document designers invoke such knowledge too rigidly when they are building a representation of a communication problem, it can stifle their ability to find an original and creative solution.”

This highlights three important points:

  1. Assemble the right team. Document design is a multi-disciplinary approach that is not constrained by specific document types or communication channels or approaches. Rather, document design principles can be applied to any type of communication.
  2. Know who you’re writing for and why. Successful communication requires an understanding of your audience, your communicative goal, and the context in which the communication will take place.
  3. Be creative. Communication is only successful if your audience understands your message the way you intended. Think beyond the traditional Word doc or PDF with fancy headings. Get creative in delivering that message.

Document design as a discipline (and plain language, our other field of expertise) has been scrutinised for being too vague and not having clear boundaries. The seminal texts behind document design that helped to shape what it is today, however, clearly state that document design is fluid and unconstrained for a reason – to “find an original and creative solution”.

And that’s why we love what we do.