By Jaeger Senn,
As someone who dabbles in graphic design, I’m often asked to “make things pretty”, causing me to cringe a little inside as there is so much more to design than simply being pretty. How could there be a problem with making a design pretty, you ask? Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with aesthetically beautiful designs. They capture our attention and draw us in; they keep us interested in what we’re looking at; they can even inspire us. Visual elements in design play an essential role in the readability of information, conveyed importance, and the emotions that viewers feel while looking at content.
Pretty is defined as “an attractive thing, typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory.” The issue is that when we think about pretty designs, the visual elements often become an afterthought (or an unnecessary accessory) to the content. It’s an easy misconception to think that content and visual elements reside in two different buckets when developing materials, and that the visual components can wait to be added until after you have all of your content in place. In reality, both content and visual elements are design features as a whole. In essence, design is all about finding the best way to communicate with an audience; to make truly great designs, the ideation of content and visual elements should be a concurrent thought process to develop the most effective balance.
While there are many forms of visualization and ways to present information, let’s use an example of one we’re all intimately familiar with: PowerPoint. Tell me if this rings a bell – we have our content loaded on a slide that’s packed to the brim with information, and then we think, “How can I make this look nice?” This leaves us dressing up a slide that doesn’t lend itself to much creative freedom. Any potential layout, formatting, or other visual/aesthetic changes are limited by what little space we have left around our text, often forcing a best-case scenario of cookie-cutter templates and dull slides.
At this point, you may be thinking, “But I’m not a designer – how does this really apply to me?” We may not all be designers in a traditional sense (i.e. graphic designers, web designers, UX designers, videographers, illustrators, etc.), but we are all designers in our own right. Each of us is given the chance to influence how viewers will interact with the information and content we present them with, and that’s what design is all about!
How can we make this happen? The key to achieving the balance between aesthetics and content is planning. It may seem that planning and creativity don’t play nice together, but it’s quite the opposite; planning doesn’t restrict creativity, but actually helps give us a path or direction through which we can channel it. Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves to help plan for the best balance before we put anything on the slides, page, website, or whatever medium we’re communicating through:
Where are we going?
Whatever content we are sharing, remember that it is a story, which should flow throughout the entirety of the deck. It’s our job to make sure that the story we share makes sense and follows a logical order. We likely have a plan of how we anticipate things will go and how the story will play out; in market research, this can often be the case with discussion guides or surveys. It’s essential, however, to remain open-minded to how the story develops as we collect and fill in information, because many times the actual story doesn’t follow the path we initially thought. By following where the story leads, we can ensure that viewers don’t get lost, and therefore remain engaged with our content.
A great tool for planning and staying true to the story being revealed is storyboarding. Storyboarding gives us the ability to make sure our story follows a logical order by laying out what we learned in an easily moveable format, such as on sticky notes. This allows us to quickly move things around to find the best order to tell the most engaging story.
The flow of content applies on a more granular level as well. Using the example of presentation slides again, all of the content on the slides needs to be read in a particular order for it to make logical sense. It’s our job to make sure that viewers are able to easily read our content in that order. We do this by the way content is laid out and purposefully using imagery or visual divides (lines, shapes, etc.), as it affects the flow of reading for viewers.
Looking at the example above, we can see just how much of an impact these factors make on the readability of the slide. Due to the unclear layout and flow of slide 1, we’re left with many questions:
- Is the “Mandatory First Step” only “Customer Strategy” or does it also include “CRM Data/Customer Logs”?
- Are “Customer Strategy” and “CRM Data/Customer Logs” completely unrelated, and that’s why they’re divided by that line?
- Is the text in the gray box on the right a note regarding “Customer Strategy” and/or “CRM Data/Customer Logs”, or is it meant to comment on the entire slide about “Existing Data”?
The design of slide 2 give more clear answers to questions previously being asked about the first slide.
What’s the point?
You know what’s the most important piece of information on your slide, but is it apparent to an outsider that this is the main point? When we’re so intimately familiar with our content, it can be so easy for us to think, “This is clearly the main point.” However, we need to take the time to put ourselves in the viewers’ shoes to see if that needs to be clearer.
In an ideal world, we could do this by only having one point per slide. This is certainly manageable for slides meant to be presented to an audience, but in reports where clients and others want as much information as possible, it may not always be realistic. We should, however, try to stick to this concept as much as possible by aiming for only a few points per slide. The next step is to make sure we differentiate those main points, so they don’t become lost in the rest of the content. By doing this, we help the viewer to understand the points we’re trying to make much more quickly – without having to search through all of the other content.
Using the same slides as before, we can see the clear difference between them. In slide 3, it will take us an extended period of time to determine what the important points of the slide are. However, in slide 4, we can gather that “Customer Strategy” and “CRM Data/Customer Logs” are important points by their distinction with the green bars and their separation from the rest of the content, as well as that “Customer Strategy” is the “Mandatory First Step” – even at a quick glance of the slide.
Can this be some sort of imagery?
Pictures, icons, and diagrams are some of many ways to better communicate what you’re currently saying with words. Often times, it can be as simple as showing an image of what you’re talking about. Seeing what you’re reading about makes your content more interesting and helps the viewer to know what’s being talked about before they even read any of the words. Pictures (such as the one in slide 6 below) are also a valuable tool to convey emotion and abstract concepts, which will not only enhance the viewers’ connection with your content on a deeper emotional level, but also gets the point across more effectively.
Perhaps we could also consider using diagrams and visual elements other than pictures; while not always as emotive as images, they can aid in a viewer’s understanding tremendously. A well-executed and organized diagram (such as slide 7) is going to be far better at combating viewers’ eye-glazing than a paragraph of text. So, before you type it all out, ask yourself “Do you really need that paragraph of text?”
All in all, there isn’t really a problem with pretty design. Actually, good design is pretty, because it helps make viewers want to look at your information without feeling bored. The real problem is that visual elements need to be included in the discussion from the beginning. Content and visual elements lean on one another to communicate information in a way that gets your point across in a clear, understandable, and interesting manner. Go forth, think, plan, and create!