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Making communication easier

You’ve probably haven’t heard of Richard Saul Wurman, but he’s one of my heroes. Author of the ACCESS guides and a variety of books on organizing information, one of his books includes some advice from designer Nancye Green (from Fast Company) for anyone trying to communicate anything, including those of us in radio.

This advice is about organizing information, which matters if you’re trying to communicate what’s on your station or even what channels your satellite radio service offers.

The story unfolds. The first step is to create an appealing picture — one that motivates the reader to start down a path. The problem with most instruction manuals is that they have no hierarchy: People don’t know where to start.

The endgame: storytelling, communication, and connecting. Information is the destination, and design — color, line, typography — is how we arrive there. That process always starts with a question. If you’re designing an instruction manual, the question may be “How do you drive a car?” — which is a different question from “How do you drive a car in a rainstorm?” If you’re sitting in a car in a rainstorm, you need to know how to turn on the windshield wipers. You don’t want that information to be buried on page 94 under “Dashboard.”

We learn by relating the new to the familiar. Good design takes you in incremental steps from the familiar to the new. Like a good teacher, design should engage you, involve you, and help you make connections between what you know and what you don’t know. Information architecture enables people to draw on what they already know. A good map, for example, provides a frame of reference and then quickly shows you how to move from the recognizable (the Atlantic Ocean, with Pennsylvania to the left of it) to the unfamiliar (a small country road). In other words, good design offers a familiar set of visual tools that you can use to access a world that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.

The hardest part is staying honest. What you get rid of is just as important as what you keep. In information design, there’s always a huge amount of data that you could include, so you need to select carefully, to deal consciously with complexity, and to keep it simple. The question of what not to include must guide you at all times. Too often, people don’t commit to what they want to say, so they have a hard time communicating it. Define what’s important, and design becomes simple.

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