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James Yu

Investigation No. 3

Information Design Manifesto


The design of digital information is terribly crucial in the 21st century. We are at
the birth of the information revolution—allowing anyone anywhere to access content in
any form and at any time. This, my friends, is a scope more tremendous than any other
seen in history. With this far reach comes the weighty issue of information design. How
are we, as designers, to intelligently display and format digital information? We are no
longer designing for one specific person, but for all types of people. This could include
the deaf, blind, and otherwise disabled web user. We must take aim and follow some
necessary elements of information design:

1) Keep the design simple and easy to read.


2) Be concerned with compatibility and usability.

These two simple rules will carry us through to a great design which will not only
inform the user, but make it an enjoyable experience. The rest of this manifesto will
grapple with each of these two rules.

Simplicity

The rule of simplicity is very crucial. Many designers know about keeping things
simple for the end user, but many also end up designing complicated and unusable
designs. Here, the main focus will be on web design, but can be carried over to other
digital design arenas like GUIs, graphic design, and digital documents.
The worst thing to do on the web is to clutter the page. The user hates clutter, and
will shun the content at the first sight of it. This is most exemplified by the popularity of
Google, whose minimalist user interface won over the hearts of web surfers everywhere.
In fact, it has become such a mainstream the internet might as well be Google itself.
This is not to say that minimalist is the ruling concept for simplicity. Many sites
are nowhere near minimalist, but are designed such that reading and navigating it is
simple.
Why is the user at the site, and what can the site offer in terms of information?
These are the two main concepts that need to be embedded in every design decision
made. Secondly, the site layout and navigation needs to be obvious and natural. Guides
should be explicitly in place to help users orient themselves.
Lastly, web elements should be well spaced. White space is crucial in web
design, just as in print. Don’t crowd the page.
Simplicity may be a moot point, but it can have a huge impact on the audience.
Sometimes, the audience is more important than you think. Pictured in Figure 1 is a
white house brief submitted to the president prior to the attacks on 9/11. Here, it is
clearly delineated that there are suspicions that Osama Bin Laden is geared for an attack
using airplanes, most likely in the metro areas. The text is very monotone and uniform—
a cursory glance at the document isn’t very useful. None of the important points are
marked or highlighted in any way. A designer named Greg Storey who is well known for
his beautifully designed homepage (http://www.airbagindustries.com/) took up the
challenge to redesign the brief, and came up with Figure 2.
Figure 1: Original White House Brief

Figure 2: Greg’s Version of Brief

Here, we see that there is an emphasis on the threat level and who the key players
are, which are stated right at the top of the document. Also, key elements within the text
are highlighted, making quick scans of the document easier and more reliable. Finally,
the text itself is more balanced with the use of a wide line spacing and a more readable
font. If the document had been designed more in the spirit of Greg’s design, maybe the
attacks would be better anticipated. We will never know for sure.

Usability and Compatibility

About 8 to 10 percent of web users have some sort of disability. The most
debilitating of these is blindness. It is estimated that a quarter million of the blind
population in the US are on the internet. Most blind users use a type of audio browser
that speaks the links and text of a website. Needless to say, this demographic is widely
ignored, and most websites have awful compatibility with the blind.
Many websites don’t fully separate content from style. This is bad for audio
browsers, since non-content elements like “ ” (for a space) and blanks confuse the
browsers and basically generate gibberish text that is read aloud. Many blind users are
very frustrated simply navigating a menu.
The solution is to totally separate content and style via style sheets and other
standardizations. This structures the site into a well-constructed markup. Many websites
violate this principle and use web elements in way that they were not meant for. Also,
putting in hooks for audio browsers (like ALT tags that describe images) can be beneficial
for the blind as well, allowing them to more easily navigate a complex page.
Other disabilities also include people with poor eyesight. Websites should never
force a font size or page width that is too small. Also, care must be taken to
accommodate color blind people by making sure key elements on a page are never just
dependent on colors alone.

Conclusions

As the internet continues to grow, more people of different abilities are coming online.
We are no longer designing for a small market segment, but for a worldwide audience
that may include anomalies never encountered before like blindness. We must make our
websites be compatible, dynamic, and organized, allowing all audiences to enjoy the
content. Using the current mature standards such as style sheets and XHTML, this task
can be well solved. Designing for the next generation of digital documents must have at
its forefront accessibility and clarity.