The contribution of design thinking to improve communications

by Saul Carliner, Éric Kavanagh, Susan Kleimann 6 minutes read

Published in The Clarity Journal 80 – 2019.

Design has been talked about much since the turn of the new millennium. Its concepts, methods, and processes are now found in all spheres of human activity.

But what about more precisely in the field of written communication? How can design thinking improve the overall condition of content produced: content used in everyday lives such as leaflets, websites, applications, forms, contracts, and information kiosks in public places?

We have pooled our expertise and our experiences as research professors and design practitioners to try to shed some light on this. This article answers four central questions about the role of design in written communication:

  • What is design and design thinking?
  • What are the benefits of using the services of a design expert?
  • What are the key characteristics to consider when designing documents?
  • What are the criteria for choosing a designer?

What is design and design thinking?

Let’s start by saying what design is not. Contrary to some popular thought, design does not refer to an artistic form, a particular aesthetic, or a “creative talent” present only in a privileged minority of people.

Instead, design can be found everywhere that humans have made intentional modifications to their environment: in buildings, in processes, in bridges and, yes, in communication materials. Whether or not ordinary people realize it, they encounter design everywhere, and everyone practices it in one form or another. This is an admittedly broad definition of design, one that some designers object to because they feel it trivializes an important expertise.

But just because everyone practices and encounters design everywhere does not mean that all design is good design.

In a narrower sense, design is a way of thinking: a specialized process that requires mastery of core theoretical concepts by a designer who applies particular methods to define a problem and recommend a solution which, in the field of communication, results in a print or digital document, or a related service. Design also requires the ability to implement this process, leading to the correction, design or production of content or a service. Also note that design is an iterative process, in which designers propose solutions, others provide feedback, and the designers revise

the content or service to reflect that feedback. Design usually requires at least one professional designer, one who ideally has university-level education in the design of communication materials as well as years of on-the-job experience.

Of course, anyone who participates in the creation and improvement of communication products and services within their organization designs, whether or not they are recognized for it. But design thinking cannot be reduced to the simple application of a particular design method. More fundamentally, design is a way of thinking about, and addressing, problems. Because most people address problems in their work and lives, anyone can benefit from training on design processes.

Also note that professional design cannot be improvised or easily transferred. Experts require years of training. So organizations should always engage an experienced designer when developing communication materials and services to maximize the problem-solving techniques that good design thinking can bring to an organization.

What are the benefits of using the services of a design expert?

Numerous benefits exist, but we want to highlight four.

Effective project definition

Effective projects begin with clear definitions of their goals, purposes, and audience; defining projects is a core characteristic of design thinking and a core competency of professional designers. These project definitions help organizations clearly identify their communication goals, intended audiences, and expected results, and anticipate issues that could affect successful achievement of those goals. Professional designers anchor their definitions in the context of the communication challenge, not the business and technology fashions of the moment, so they identify and solve the communication challenge the organization faces. The clear definitions also provide a basis for ensuring the quality of the project.

Adapted solutions

Designers use these project definitions to devise effective communication strategies and materials, which reflect the context of the organization and the needs and expectations of the target audiences. These materials communicate their messages in clear, relevant, effective, and efficient ways and achieve their intended goals.

Transferable expertise

Designers can sensitize, train, and transfer their expertise to teams within the organization beyond the communications team. This strengthens design skills internally and can increase the sense of pride in their work.

Positive Impact on the Community

Using expert communication designers ultimately contributes to improving the democratic health of the community, especially the use of expert communication designers in legal communication. Legal organizations that engage in design thinking with the right experts design better communication products and provide better services to the public and that, in turn, creates stronger communities.

What are the key characteristics to consider when designing documents?

In communication, design must be centered on readers: that is, focused on the needs of readers or users, and sensitive to their personal characteristics and the contexts in which they use the content. Reader- or user-centered communication focuses on readers’ needs. This contrasts with organization-focused communication, which focuses on the message the organization wants to share, without consideration of the intended readers or the impact of the message on them. Organization-focused communication usually just addresses legal, administrative, and fiscal issues with little regard for reader comprehension of them, much less reader acceptance of these issues. Even more, design thinking can thus help organizations more clearly identify the exact communication issue as they shift the consideration to readers.

Called human-centered design, this recommended approach starts with gaining insights into the intended readers. One tool designers use to capture their understanding of readers is the persona. Personas are fictional characters who are representative of the target audience and provide insights into their characteristics (such as their level of literacy), their challenges when reading (such as a lack of legal vocabulary), and motivations. Organizations record personas in fact sheets. After completing a draft of the content, the organization can anticipate how the person described in the persona might respond to the content.

A second key characteristic of design focuses on cognitive issues: that is, the ability of readers to comprehend the message of the content or service as intended. For example, do readers have sufficient prior knowledge and experience to comprehend the message and, if they do, does the message confirm or refute that prior knowledge and experience? In the latter instance, the designer prepares content that helps rebuild readers’ knowledge.

A third key characteristic of design focuses on emotional issues: that is, the state of mind of readers when using the content or service. In the context of legal material, designers might advise on the likelihood of communication materials exacerbating the asymmetrical relationship between the state and the citizen through the use of certain formalities and a directive tone.

Designers anticipate the motivation of readers to respond to the message and, if needed, enhance their designs to provide that motivation. Doing so could have budgetary implications, because, in some situations, building readers’ low motivation to respond involves creating more visually elaborate designs.

Furthermore, good designers are humble by example. They show organizations how to think through critical aspects of their readers and to avoid making assumptions about them. In the same way, designers know the best way to validate the work they have done is by testing the content with actual users and readers. This testing admittedly has up-front budgetary implications, but helps to ensure that the designs work, and avoids costly problems resulting from poor communication.

All of these key characteristics reflect applications of cognitive psychology. These key characteristics further illustrate how design thinking goes beyond the surface of messages to addressing the challenges of how to convey messages in a way that readers can understand and act on them.

What are the criteria for choosing a designer?

Competence. First, look for a well-trained designer, preferably one with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a relevant branch of information, graphic, or communication design. Although design training once focused primarily on visual design, most design programs focus on the process of design and teach techniques and tactics that are rooted in scientific research. Central to current design programs is the concept of design thinking: a focus on addressing problems that begins by considering users’ needs and concludes by assessing the extent to which the solutions met those needs. In legal communication, it focuses     on the extent to which content helps readers address their legal challenges. Experience . . . or youth. Although experienced designers bring a vast array of challenges and solutions to their work, young, freshly graduated designers can compensate for their limited experience with training in more recent and advanced methods as well as their motivation to have an impact on their world.

The vision of design. Collaborate with designers who emphasize the process rather

than ones who offer quick fixes. Those quick fixes probably solve the wrong problem.

Chemistry. Select a designer with whom your organization will feel comfortable collaborating, especially if you are considering major changes in your way of approaching communications. A designer with tact and empathy can help the team reach necessary conclusions.

Availability and openness. Look for a collaborator who wants to spend time  in your organization, who sincerely want to know you and help your organization communicate as effectively as possible with your intended readers, and who wants to identify and solve problems, not impose pretty designs.

Just as importantly, you and your team, too, need to be available and open to the designer. Share time, information, and resources with the designer, and make room for them in your organization, so they can collaborate with all the people involved in the project.

Understand from the outset that design is a complex expertise. Design is not a magic or a one-time event. Rather, design is a process that follows a design thinking methodology that helps organizations clearly define the project they are undertaking and leads to solutions that focus on reaching the intended readers within any constraints affecting the project. Most of all, design represents an openness to relevant ideas and successful collaborations.