Designing information for everyday reading
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Reading
Unit of AssessmentArt and Design: History, Practice and Theory
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Library and Information Studies
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Research carried out by the University of Reading's Department of
Typography & Graphic Communication into the design of information for
everyday reading has contributed to public services and policy making by:
— improving government communications and
— changing the use of design by non-specialists, particularly in
The Department's expertise has been used in areas where communication is
challenging (prisons and UK Jobcentres), benefiting disadvantaged user
groups. The Department of Typography's input to the communications of
GOV.UK and HMRC has benefited the UK public in contexts where poor design
decisions can prove costly to both individuals and government departments.
In addition, the Department's research-based exhibitions have spread
public understanding of information design, attracting specialists and
non-specialists and receiving significant coverage in the professional,
national and international press.
The Department of Typography & Graphic Communication has a strong
track record of research into the design of everyday documents, dating
back to the 1980s and evidenced throughout the REF period. This research
brings together historical, theoretical and practical approaches.
Key researchers for the research and impact captured in this case study
Alison Black (Professor; 2011-present)
Christopher Burke (Research Fellow; 2007-present)
M Esbester (Research Fellow 2008-11)
Paul Stiff (Professor; 1980-2011)
Rob Waller (Professor; 2008-11)
Stiff's (2002) paper `Why do designers need to understand reading?'
developed the umbrella term `design for reading', describing the necessary
processes of analysing document content, making appropriate design
decisions and carrying out testing to support the needs of real, rather
than ideal, imagined readers. Stiff's analysis sought an understanding of
reading that is more useful to designers than accounts that are often
derived from psychology, which largely ignore navigational and selection
tasks or non-textual elements such as diagrams and maps. Design for
reading is positioned as solving practical communication problems, a key
component of which, in the broad scope of document design, is to know why
documents fail their readers and to prevent such failures from occurring.
Stiff (2005) mapped a history of this problem-solving approach to design
through the 20th century and, stemming from this analysis,
carried out further historical investigation in his AHRC-funded project
(£387,000, with Esbester) `Designing information for everyday life,
1815-1914', which included specific investigations of timetables and forms
(Esbester, 2009, 2011). This research focus on the history of information
design was extended by the Department's AHRC-funded project `Isotype
revisited' (£380,000) based on its unique archive of the pictorially-based
public information design undertaken by the Isotype team (led by Otto and
Marie Neurath) from the 1920s to the early 1970s. Significant publications
from this project include Burke's (2009) analysis of Isotype's pictorial
communication of social statistics.
The Department's success in building the profile of research in design
for everyday reading provided a foundation for the University-backed
initiative to establish the Simplification Centre (2008-11), a
multidisciplinary team of researchers in design, linguistics and
psychology, with the brief of developing research in precisely those areas
of public communication where documents often fail. In his 2008 paper
`Simplification: what is gained and what is lost', Waller set out an
explanation of what `simplification' entails. He demonstrated that naïve
interpretations of simplification risk depriving readers of information
they need, or placing additional load on them by not dealing with the
complexity of the underlying information. This failure to deal with
complexity can be critical for people dealing with, for example, financial
and legal documents. Waller set out a classification of the type of
techniques (reduction, amplification, stratification and personalisation)
that should be of use in preparing complex information for everyday
reading. This approach was applied in the consulting work carried out by
the Simplification Centre.
In mid 2011 the Simplification Centre changed name to Centre for
Information Design Research (CIDR), from which, Black and Stanbridge's
(2012) diary study of document recipients' responses to the public and
corporate communications they received provided insight into the
particular aspects of everyday documents that people respond to
explicitly. Although documents may succeed or fail in ways that users are
not able to articulate, this research highlighted how their language and
design are interpreted in the context of people's understanding of the
sender organisation. The research has provided a framework for recent
guideline development carried out by the Centre for Information Design
References to the research
•2002 Stiff, P. `Why do designers need to understand reading?' Proceedings
of Ist International Conference in Communication Design,
Thessaloniki. Copy of printed paper available upon request.
•2005, Stiff, P. Some documents for a history of information design. Information
Design Journal, 13/3, 216-228, doi: 10.1075/idjdd.13.3.06sti.
Published in peer-reviewed journal.
•2008* Waller R.H.W. `Simplification: what is gained and what is lost'.
In T. Porathe (Ed.). Applications of Information Design 2008:
Selected papers from the international conference at Malardalen University
in Eskilstuna, Sweden 25-28 June 2008, pp 219-230. Eskilstuna: Malardalen
University Press. ISBN: 978-91-86135-31-7. Copy of printed paper available
•2009 Burke, C. (2009) `Isotype: representing social facts pictorially'.
Information Design Journal, 17/3. 211-223. ISSN 0142-5471 doi:
10.1075/idj.17.3.06bur. Published in peer-reviewed journal.
•2009 Esbester, M. `Designing time: the design and use of
nineteenth-century transport timetables,' Journal of Design History,
22/2, 91-113, doi: 10.1093/jdh/epp011. Published in peer-reviewed journal.
•2011 Esbester, M. `Taxing design? Design and readers in British tax
forms before 1914', Design Issues, 27/3, 84-97
doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00093. Published in peer-reviewed journal.
•2012 Black, A. and Stanbridge, K.L. `Documents as critical incidents in
organization to consumer communication.' Visible Language, 46/3,
246-281. Photocopy of printed paper available upon request. (Peer reviewed
and included in REF2)
* Preparation of this paper was supported by subscription-based funding
for the Simplification Centre (whose members included Aegon UK, AXA UK,
Department of Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs National
Offender Management Service and the Welsh Assembly). Subscription total
Details of the impact
Improving government communications with service users
The reputation of the Department of Typography's research in public
information design led to direct approaches by UK Government departments
for assistance with communication to improve their services.
• 2010-11 Supporting equality in prisons: Race Equality Advisory
Group (REAG), part of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)
Two projects were commissioned from Simplification Centre by REAG to
improve equality and transparency in treatment of prisoners. (Both
projects were collaborations with professional design consultancy, Text
Matters, who implemented our research-based methods.)
1) Translation of a paper-based documentation process to an online,
interactive tool kit (the NOMS Equality Impact Assessment Tool, NEAT) that
facilitates incident recording, management and tracking for Britain's
90,000 prisoners. Our problem-solving approach to forms design ensured
usability of the interface and transparency of the reports produced by the
tool. NEAT was listed as a `Key Achievement' in the NOMS Equalities
Annual Report for 2009-10 and was implemented nationally via NOMS
Ensuring Equality Instruction, 14 April 2011.
2) Stemming from the success of NEAT, the research team worked with NOMS
REAG to create a shared checklist, ReCoDe (Request, Context, Decision),
for prisoners and officers to follow when prisoners make requests. The
checklist describes a sequence for dialogue to promote equitable handling
of requests across all prisoners. Pictorial communication tools
(influenced by our research expertise in Isotype) were prepared to explain
the process for both officers and prisoners. ReCoDE was first implemented
at Aylesbury and Cookham Wood prisons, with a positive response. The
Governor of Cookham Wood attributed a significant drop in the use of force
in her prison to the checklist and HM Inspector of Prisons (2011)
identified it as an example of good practice. ReCoDe was subsequently
taken up by Elmley Prison. The tool was evaluated independently by London
School of Economics' Mannheim Centre for Criminology, who reported very
positive outcomes where the tool had been implemented enthusiastically by
• 2012-13 Changing people's approach to job search: Cabinet Office
Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)
BIT, which was piloting behavioural interventions to increase the
effectiveness of job seekers' search for work, asked for guidance to
develop a shared record form, or 'commitment pack', for job seekers and
their Jobcentre Plus advisors. CIDR designed a structured documentation
pack which supported job seeking by clarifying for the job seeker and
advisor the tasks that the job seeker had made a commitment to carrying
out during the interval between appointments, and when or how he or she
was going to do them. CIDR introduced user scenarios to help explain the
process to the job seeker and used design to make the pack look attractive
and less institutional than other, typical Jobcentre documentation. The
pack was piloted at 12 Jobcentres in Essex (covering 20,000 job seekers)
from February 2013. The success of the pack during the REF period led to
the decision to extend the use of a commitment pack nationally (announced
by the Minister for Employment in August 2013).
• 2012-13 Research-based guidelines for Government digital
— Stemming from our successful input to the job seeker's pack, CIDR was
asked by BIT to prepare research-evidenced `Top Tips for Letter Writing'
for the Cabinet Office. Described by the client as `very helpful', the
project led to a commission for a research rationale for Government
Digital Service (GDS) content guidelines (see below).
— CIDR prepared a research-based rationale and critique for GDS' existing
content guidelines that are applied to all Government online documents and
can be accessed by any web user. This input led to revisions in the
guidelines. At GDS' request, the team prepared a blog post for them on the
use of research to inform practice
readers/). The post was viewed over 900 times from publication (11
June) to 31 July.
• 2010-13 CPD training in information design for HMRC
HMRC asked the Simplification Centre to develop a training course in
information design for non-designers, to raise awareness and equip
participants with skills to commission design effectively. The course
(ongoing) has attracted 21 students from HMRC and additional participants
from insurance companies AXA and Aegon. Gavin Jefferies, Head of Customer
Information at HMRC, commented that participants `found it helpful in
providing a framework to identify design improvements and also the
theoretical/ research-based evidence to defend their recommendations'.
Communicating the principles and practice of public information design
Alongside direct collaboration with government departments, the
Department of Typography & Graphic Communication has used its funded
research projects as a foundation for the following exhibitions explaining
the significance and methods of `design for everyday reading' to civil
• 2010 St Bride Library (London): `Designing Information for
Based on `Designing information before designers' and attracting,
particularly, a professional audience (following a positive review in Eye
Magazine), visitors' written comments included `The designing
exhibit brought the Victorians to life in ways I have never experienced
before...' and `An eye-opener and inspiration for modern information
designers grappling with these problems...in a digital environment'.
•2010-11 Victoria and Albert Museum (London) `Isotype:
international picture language'
Based on the project `Isotype revisited', the Austrian Cultural Forum
London collaborated on the private view of this collection, which was
attended by the Austrian Ambassador (Isotype was initially developed in
Vienna in the 1920s) . The exhibition was previewed in Eye Magazine
and reported in the Independent, International Herald Tribune
and New York Times and in interviews with Austrian radio station,
ORF (May 2011). Exhibition footfall (based on uptake of the exhibition
prospectus) was a minimum of 4,000. The website for `Isotype revisited'
receives an average of 5,000 visits per month.
Sources to corroborate the impact
National Offender Management Service
Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team
- Policy Advisor* — design of the Jobseeker Pack for trial in Essex
Government Digital Services
- Head of Content Design* — can corroborate work to prepare
research-based principles/guidelines for writing for the web.
- Specialist Infrastructure Manager, HMRC Digital Service, Operations* —
corroboration indicating the impact of the course on his work as a
manager in HMRC Digital Services.
Victoria and Albert Museum
- Senior Archivist* — collaborated with the Typography Department in
setting up The Victoria and Albert Museum's hosting of the Isotype
(*) Contact details provided separately