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Karen A. Schriver might not be justified. In any case, how could

Dynamics in document design: I possibly criticise a book that describes
creating texts for readers Information design journal as 'influential'.
New York: John Wiley, 1997
ISBN 0 - 4 7 1 - 3 0 6 3 6 - 3 , paperback (560pp) What kind of book is it?
$39.95/£32.50 Published in the Wiley Computer Publishing
A book I can recommend series, and with computer imagery on the cover,
For years I have been at a loss as to how to the book looks and feels like one of those fat
respond to the question 'what books do you squarish computer books that you expect to be
recommend?'. My response is usually a list of written as an introduction to some clearly-
books and articles, heavily qualified in various defined technical concepts. But this isn't
ways - get Edward Tufte's books, absorb his document design for dummies.
collection of information design classics, marvel In fact, I had some trouble identifying its
at the production values (and then read Nigel genre, and thus the critical rules by which I
Holmes as an antidote). Read Jan White for his should evaluate it. It is as much a curriculum as
accessible style and rare designer's articulation a book. With frequent footnotes and citations, it
of the interplay between the visual and the ver- is mostly written in an academic tradition that
bal. Read articles by Pat Wright, Michael presents practical recommendations within a
Twyman and others - mostly published in jour- theoretical and scientific context. There are also
nals and proceedings not easily reached away brisk historical surveys that belong in an intro-
from a university library. Read back issues of ductory textbook, and other features that would
Information design journal. be more at home in a practical manual (and
Karen Schriver has solved my problem, which seem oddly out of place here, until you
and provided the key ingredients for a book remember it is published in a computer books
I can recommend: list) - for example, an appendix listing the Zapf
• a sense of information design's heritage - Dingbats symbols, and how to access them
where it came from, what it is, and what it is from your PC keyboard.
not (although she prefers the term 'document If it is a textbook, some readers - not me -
design', of which more later) may find the frequent citations rather over-
• a sizeable bibliography (albeit with some done. Citations have perhaps three distinct
inevitable omissions of personal favourites) functions: at their best they credit the source
• a focus on the readers' experience as the of an idea with prior publication; they also help
central issue (it is sub-titled 'creating text for readers who want to follow up with further
readers') reading; and lastly they are sometimes used to
• a search for working methods, not just lend an authority of sorts to the author who
miraculously conceived solutions feels the reader will have less trust in an un-
• case studies, together with documentation of supported idea. (In another book I once found
the designers' strategies and evidence of read- myself cited in support of some guideline, but
ers' reactions on checking the cited paper, an obscure and
• an intelligent balance between research find- unobtainable conference presentation, found
ings, evolved genres, and creative solutions. I had made a simple assertion. The reader of
So it was with some trepidation that I started the citation, though, could have assumed I
to review it, fearful that my first impression was reporting on a major scientific study.)

Information Design Journal 9:1 (1998), 80–83. DOI 10.1075/idj.9.1.20wal
ISSN 0142–5471 / E-ISSN 1569–979X © John Benjamins Publishing Company

Over the years I've often been surprised to time, research findings, and expert consensus
hear designers refer to IDJ as very highbrow, opinion to use as guidance. In short, a sense of
theoretical and ivory-tower - and so it is a worry being part of a profession with its own distinc-
that information designers who see themselves tive debates, values and methods. And ethics,
as practical problem-solving types may actually with an echo of Otto Neurath's definition of the
find this book's length, depth and frequent cita- transformer as 'trustee of the public': 'docu-
tions a barrier. Having said that, Schriver ment designers must stand up for the reader,
argues convincingly that this is precisely what is making sure they know what happens to the
needed to augment the numerous introductory documents they work on' (page 206).
texts that are available: 'My goal is to offer a Part 1 seeks to reinforce this sense of belong-
research-based view of document design that ing to a profession by tracing its historical roots,
reflects the complexity and difficulty that sea- and relating it to events and trends in society as
soned writers and graphic designers have expe- a whole. Although some will miss their heroes,
rienced' (p. xxiv). Schriver is generous in her description of UK
work in establishing the field, and acknowledges
Summarising the book
important contributions from other English-
The contents list should help me summarise
speaking countries. Starting with history (and it
the book for you, but it is not to my mind a
includes one of those time lines which blends
great success. Spread over seven pages, with
minor incidents such as 'Second World War
many headings in all upper-case, and an
starts' and major events like 'Information
unsay able structure that involves three parts,
Design Journal launched') is perhaps risky, as
and seven something-elses (chapters, I suppose,
it gives us all something to quarrel with before
not sections, as some of them are themselves
we get to the main point of the book.
divided into section i, section 2 and so on),
I find myself having to concentrate quite hard Part 2 'Observing readers in action'
to relay the structure of the book. My difficulty The preface establishes that at the heart of
probably reflects its mix of genres, and probably book is Schriver's appreciation of the context in
also the struggle it must have been to articulate which documents are both produced and used -
so much reading, insight and experience and to and it is this that above all else lifts this book to
reconcile a range of conflicting views. Some a higher level than many of the dreary research
parts seem to be something of a brain dump, papers she accords so much respect to. She
but there is so much of interest in Karen hopes 'to capture the texture of the choices doc-
Schriver's brain that I'm happy to accept it. ument designers make and represent the subtle-
ty of the knowledge they rely on in carrying out
Part 1 'Situating document design'
their work'. But lest designers become smug at
Schriver sees her audience not as beginners but
this welcome recognition of the validly of their
as recent converts to the information design
craft knowledge, she also has a challenge for
approach who want to place their field in a
those who have little idea or interest in what
social, historical and cultural context, who want
people actually do with documents: 'I want to
to engage with the critical issues, who want to
enable document designers to imagine the read-
gain the sort of insight that comes from seeing
ers' world more vividly - to envision people rif-
an experienced practitioner in action. They
fling through pages, clicking on hypertext links,
won't be disappointed - they'll find strong
ferreting out fact from hype, mapping prose to
views to take issue with, as I did from time to

Information design journal 9 / 1 (1998)


pictures, wondering what the heck something taken seriously; that direct exposure to the evi-
means' (p. xxv). dence of readers' needs is the key to document
This, above all, is what the book is about. design; that practitioners and researchers each
It tells us how to design by telling us how people have important things to contribute. It reads
read. How people read is described in terms of pretty much like a mission statement for
research, in terms of models and in the evidence Information design journal, in fact.
of real readers using documents. And impor- It's an effective mixture of historical survey,
tantly, in her own work if not in all the studies research review, research report and manifesto.
she cites, readers are modelled, described and Glued together with Karen Schriver's astute
recorded using real documents for real purposes observation of the complex processes of making
and in the context of real beliefs, not just labo- and using documents, this is going to be an
ratory text for a scientist's purpose (with their important sourcebook for the next generation
beliefs, preconceptions and questions checked of converts to information, sorry... document
in at the lab door). In this the largest part of the design.
book, there are extensive worked examples that
provide an invaluable resource for those want- Postscript: Document design vs information design
ing insight into how layouts work, how pictures Which brings me to the matter of the name we
and text work together, how gestalt principles give our field. Much as I want to agree with
operate, and what researchers have contributed. everything Karen Schriver says, I was barely six
pages in when I found myself baulking at her
Part 3 Responding to readers' needs' discussion of the competing terms 'document
Schriver argues throughout for what she terms design' and 'information design'.
a feedback-driven model of design, as distinct In a book packed with meticulous citation,
from an intuition-driven model. T h e final part it is odd to find none in a debate described in
of the book is designed to back up the feedback- some detail between 'some writers and design-
driven method with some real techniques er' and 'opponents to using the term "informa-
demonstrated through case studies. I find the tion design'". She links the term 'information
distinction less clearcut than she intends - as design' directly to the Shannon-Weaver infor-
I understand her argument, the intuition-driven mation theory model, and deploys the argu-
model is where the designer imagines a reader ments against that, against the term 'informa-
and provides for their imagined need, whereas tion design'. For Schriver, 'information' appar-
the feedback-driven method is informed by ently carries with it metaphorical baggage that
actual readers. Now she does naturally I personally don't find there - the container
acknowledge that you can't always get feed- metaphor implicit in information theory that
back, but that you may have to rely on getting suggest facts neatly packaged and transported
enough to inform your judgement generally - to a passive reader. 'Document', though, is in
in other words your intuition. contrast seen as suggesting 'the act of writing
Dynamics in document design is a campaigning and designing', an inference that completely
book - it doesn't overtly push a highly theoreti- escapes me.
cal viewpoint, but presents all the evidence that It never before occurred to me that the term
can be mustered for some basic truths: that lan- 'document design' represented a profound
guage and design are intricately connected; that rejection of a model of communication repre-
readers have identifiable needs that should be sented by the term 'information design'. Surely

Information design journal 9 / 1 (1998)


document design simply reflects a slightly dif- wrong with the editing of the marginal note on p. 35 that
ferent tradition to information design, but one says 'the blue pencil, appearing around 1888, used a spe-
cial blue lead that made editing marks invisible on photo-
with many shared objectives. Document design, copies'.
exemplified by the Document Design Center in
the USA and the DHSS Document Design Unit
Robert Waller
in the UK, came out of the plain English move- Information Design Unit
ment, with language specialists taking the active Old Chantry Court
role and recruiting designers to their cause. Newport Pagnell
Information design, though, was the other way
MK16 8AB
around. It came out of graphic design - and
graphic designers are perhaps less focused on
documents than on wider systems of communi-
cations and graphic identity.
If I reject the term 'document design' it is
because it seems to me too focused on the docu-
ment as an object rather than on broader pro-
cesses. It is inadequate to describe the work our
consultancy does in, for example, designing dia-
logue systems where phone conversations are
interchangeable with information-giving and
information-gathering forms or screens. And
'document design' doesn't work in the area of
wayfinding - signage systems are not docu-
ments but they are information, and a number
of concepts derived from research on wayfind-
ing provide useful metaphors for dealing with
the design of complex documents or interfaces.
But perhaps this is just a case of 'you say tom-
ahto and I say tomayto ... ' and we should call the
calling off off. After all, neither term has got
through to the publisher, Wiley*, who resolute-
ly insist on the subject classification 'writing/
graphic design' on the back cover.

*And in a final criticism of the publisher (I assume), the

book could have done with some tougher editing. Some
descriptions are unnecessarily long - we are treated, for
example, to an eight-page mind-crunching account of the
author's problems programming her video recorder. It
does make an important point about the concept of 'prob-
lem space', but this is lost in the detail. And I do have to
mention some howlers that have crept in, I feel sure, dur-
ing the copy-editing process. For example, 'ragged-right
text (also called ranged-right text)' and 'ragged-left text
(also called ranged-left text)'. And something clearly went

Information design journal 9/1 (1998)