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Dynamics in Document Design

by Karen A. Schriver

Document Design cover

Note: Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher, who uses Karen Schriver's book in his classes at North Carolina State University, shares what his students are saying about this book.

It's hard to describe what a pleasure it is to read a history of the various threads that go into the design decisions in a document and see them integrated into a whole. Many people in the field of document design segued into it from some other discipline. For these people, many may not have the big picture of how this field developed. Schriver provides it in her book.

Many of us who practice document design, though, know exactly what Schriver is talking about when she comments that those outside the field "tend to underestimate the knowledge, sensibilities, and skills writers and graphic designers need to develop their expertise." (p. xxiv)

Most of us in the trenches recognize the propensity for our work to be

usually construed as somewhat perfunctory, taking place after the important activity of deciding what to say. In this view, design is relegated to dressing up and graphically packaging messages already structured, content already meaningful. Visual design from this perspective demands no planning, no orchestration of competing visions. It simply involves polishing the look of the document -- giving /it punch by using a daring typeface or making it sizzle by adding color or illustrations. Much like the wardrobe mistress behind the scenes of a play who at the last minute may be found straightening a tie, adding feathers to a hat, or tying a colorful sash, the graphic designer has been regarded as someone who adds a bit of spice to the scene of a text. (pp. 5-6)
The book provides a history of the development of the discipline of document design and includes a timeline of events from 1900 to the present of how developments in five areas have contributed to the field: the teaching and practice of writing and of graphic design, the professional developments in writing and graphic design, science and technology, and society and consumerism.

Schriver defines document design as

the act of bringing together prose, graphics (including illustration and photography), and typography for the purposes of instruction, information, or persuasion. Good document design enables people to use the text in ways that serve their interests and needs....the reader's needs should drive design activity. (p. 11)
There's a difference, Schriver says, between defining an audience "and looking at how users try to use a form or instructions." There are studies here of projects in which users were observed trying to do a task and interviewed, tape recorded, or videotaped in the process. She provides example after example of experienced writers who simulate an audience based on their own experience, writers who often judge the quality of a document by whether it follows house style. She contrasts this type of document process to one based on professional writers observing people trying to do something with the documents.

Schriver surveys the part graphic design and typography play in the document design process as well. She does a good job of demonstrating the complex problems seasoned writers and graphic designers deal with, problems that cannot be reduced to an arbitrary list of do's and don'ts.

To offset the rule-based approach to document design, Schriver suggests heuristics for making design choices. She notes that heuristics, from the rhetorical tradition, provide a systematic approach to a design problem in the form of probes which bring to the designers attention things already known, in effect, giving the designer a new perspective on the problem (p. 59). She provides heuristics for choosing typography and for constructing grids.

Most designers are familiar with the feeling of trying to hold the whole together while giving attention to the parts, the feeling that the demands to select the parts are breaking up the attempt to keep the overall feeling of the design together. Schriver devotes a generous portion of her book to discussing Gestalt principles in relation to document design, the role of spatial and typographic cues in documents. In addition, she addresses the psychological effect of poor design on those who use the texts.

The basic page design in Schriver's book is a four-column grid, and she uses it well. While it seemed strange at first to find some of the footnotes in the white space besides the columns of text, I soon found myself actually reading the footnotes, something I only do haphazardly when they appear at the bottom of the page.

Nonetheless, the sheer amount of information on the pages can at times create confusion. I find this particularly true in the table of contents where the level of subheadings is so detailed that I lost track of the major sections. I've listed the major headings below, omitting the secondary titles after the colon except with Chapter 5, where I felt it was needed to explain content.

Part I: Situating Document Design

1. What is Document Design
2. Evolution of the Field

Part II: Observing Readers in Action

3. How Documents Engage Readers' Thinking and Feeling
4. The Impact of Poor Design
5. Seeing the Text: The Role of Typography and Space
6. The Interplay of Words and Pictures

Part III: Responding to Readers' Needs

7. What Document Designers Can Learn from Readers.


A. Publications of Interest to Document Designers
B. Common Typographic Symbols
C. Guidelines for Designing Online Displays

Are you still looking for some kind of research on how people really use online documents, including web pages? You can find it here. There are numerous case studies discussed in this book, and they include one study of how people search for answers to computing problems online and another of a web page which users found too fragmented for comfort.

Schriver's case studies demonstrate how document design and product design must be integrated to produce products people can use. Companies, she says:

need to move beyond the antiquated view of documentation as a nuisance activity and "bring their best communicators into the front end of product development."
Karen Schriver boldly steps up to the front lines of consumer electronics companies and criticizes their common practice of assigning the task of writing and designing instruction guides
to engineers (so they can learn the company's line of products or because they know the technology) or members of the marketing staff (because they know the demographics)....She is hoping that....this worrisome (and dumb) practice will come to an end. ( p. 210)
Do I hear any cheers of support out there?

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