Communication, design, and clarity (1)

One of the ways in which people describe the quality of communication is to talk about its clarity. Insofar as designers are involved in communication, clarity matters. Whether it is communication with clients, stakeholders, fellow collaborators or users, the quality of communication is important. Also, in some areas of design—such as information design—clarity is not just a means to an end, but is often an end in itself. Making instructions, bills, forms, websites, labels, way-finding systems and so on clear and easy for people to use is the raison d’être for information design.

Outside design, but with strong implications for design, are the advocates for clarity in language. Where these advocates have been successful in influencing lawmakers, there is now a growing body of legislation which requires people to use clear language. For example, in Australia, where the Commonwealth Government initiated a plain English policy in 1983, the regulations governing financial advisers require the information to be ‘clear, concise and effective’.(2) Similar laws and regulations exist in many jurisdictions.

Thus clarity in communication is of interest to many, and the ways in which we might productively talk about clarity have philosophical, practical and legal implications.

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1. Acknowledgments

This essay was stimulated by a discussion on the PHD-DESIGN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK list in May 2007 arising from a call for papers to the Design Philosophy Papers. I contributed to the discussion, and made some provocative remarks querying the clarity of the request, indulging in what some contributors regarded as a provocative questioning of the assumptions that seemed to inform the request. On the PhD Design list, specific matters often become the subject of generalised theoretical debates; my specific critique of the absence of clarity in the call for papers was quickly transformed into a discussion about the nature of clarity. Ken Friedman and Peter Storkeson invited me to elaborate on my views of this. Following their kind invitation, this paper is my attempt to articulate more fully some of the ways in which we might productively talk about clarity. I am indebted to Dr Ruth Shrensky for her comments on an earlier draft, and her help in editing the text. Published originally in Design Research Quarterly. V. 3:1 January 2008 Design Research Society ISSN 1752-8445 pp 1–6. The endnotes that accompanied that paper were inadvertently omitted. They are included here.