cutting remarks: valuing information

That ‘knowledge is power’ is not disputed, but acceptance of the value of information is under threat. With unprecedented budget cuts becoming ‘normal’, the cost of communicating is called into question whilst its value is ignored.

With Crazy George & chums currently riding roughshod through UK public services, machetes flailing, there is financial pressure of the most intense kind on public institutions. Used to state regulation, detached from the free market’s instant and unforgiving feedback, there is no solid tradition of objectively balancing prioritities. Forced to plan big cuts, decision-makers may already have reached the “if I cut this will the entire institution fail tomorrow?” stage. Can we hope for measured appraisal of the worth of communications design in this climate? This must be a good time for designers to argue for the value of communications and information design wherever they get the chance.

Most printed communications end up in a bin sooner or later, so perhaps it is unsurprising that this is taken as indicative of its worth. Ministers have derided government website development budgets (OK, last year’s £94m is a few quid), and the Tax Payers’ Alliance have called government phone apps “fashionable gimmicks”. The tone of some media reporting implies that all information initiatives are trivial attention-seeking indulgences of questionable value. I am of course biased, but fail to see how devices/structures/media that allow people better access to services can be anything but good. Many millions were wasted in poorly-planned information projects in pursuit of the last government’s ‘transparency’ promises, and there is certainly room for improving efficiency – but there are few signs that the Axemen of the Apocalypse are encouraging qualitative distinctions as yet.  Rational cost/benefit analysis may not yet be embedded in public service culture even where the proper management of information is a vital success factor.

Good communication is essential for any fully-functioning organization. Any public or private body that provides a product or service needs to ensure that it is understood by all its stakeholders. This requires consideration of every written/spoken public word and every pixel of visual content, whether ‘brand’ or purely instructional communication. Customers are increasingly demanding/critical and thoughtfully designed products and services employ ‘good information’ (well-designed, accessible) to improve the user experience. Some specifics:

Good information can improve a poor product. Much improved, more accessible timing information via web/phone apps has removed much of the anxiety and stress from train travel.  They may not run any more promptly, may still be too costly and you may not get a seat – but if you are going to be late, you now know how late and can adjust your plans. This is a clear service improvement (at a far lower cost than new infrastructure or rolling stock).

Good information makes things work better, saves money. In health services, improved outcomes can be delivered by clear, effective information distribution (web/printed literature, signs and other communications). This creates easier access to services; better understanding of clinical conditions (so more patient cooperation, more effective treatments); clarity of who to call on (and how) for further help – plus a general sense of confidence in the organization that can only aid recovery.  Not to mention the small matter of the public good, and that effectiveness naturally reduces the cost of services.

Good information can be part of the product. When Carters Tested Seeds wanted to stand out from their competitors, they added extensive (beautifully illustrated) well-written growing instructions to their packs. Consumers recognized this added value and made the brand a success. Granada Channels (in the early days of the Satellite & Cable media revolution) created an updatable media guide charting the growth of the entire industry (not just their part in it) and in doing so built trust and credibility in their market niche.

Sometimes good information is the product. Where this is true, making information appear consistently and distinctively – above all clear – by design tangibly enhances the value of the product and brand.  The Guardian takes pride not just in its journalism, but in information at every level and its delivery, ensuring all formats are designed for effectiveness and accessibility.

No two projects are identical so quantitative proof of effectiveness is hard to find – although you might want to check out the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awards – but the design process undoubtedly increases the value of information. Raw information contains ‘noise’ in the form of repetition and redundancy and often is poorly structured, inconsistent and inappropriate in its language. It is often created from what is available, rather than what the consumer may want/need. It may be unappealing or unnoticeable. Processing raw content requires a sustained concentration for which we no longer have the time (or inclination). Our reduced attention spans direct us away from poorly presented messages. Good design distils information to its essential components, strips out the superfluous, explores alternative structures and uses attractive and memorable forms to create a much more effective message, sharpening the communication the better to embed itself in the passing consumer. What organisation can really afford to do this less well?

So can you cut your budget and still communicate well? Yes. Good communication and effective information design need not be an added cost. The best designers are not necessarily the ones with the highest fees and they do not charge more to do their job thoroughly. Designers are also in a good position to deliver production as well as communication economies, with their finger on information delivery options i.e.: print (from high-end gravure through litho to digital); websites/blogs, targetted apps, news and Twitter feeds, PDF downloads and so on. Whatever the medium, be it free PDF download or limited edition gallery catalogue, good designers manage essential information, make it attractive, accessible and make its value apparent.

Design is an easy-to-cut outsourced function often lumped in with other ‘consultancy’, but very few organisations have the resources to do this well in-house. These are not good times for design budgets, but a recent BBC2 Newsnight feature on information design suggests an increasing appreciation for what can be achieved by designing information. Good organisations will communicate better with smaller resources, but others may feel they can afford not to communicate. Pressured into cutting off their nose to spite their face, we may not hear much about their slow demise as they quietly fade from view…

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