Articles

Design and illustration: 20 years on

David Whitbread

Twenty years ago, David Whitbread was writing the design, illustration and production chapters and was art director for the 6th edition of the Australian Government Style manual for authors, editors and printers and the 1st edition of his own The design manual. Here he reflects on changes in design and illustration since then.

It is imperative now, more than ever, that design communicates immediately. We no longer have the luxury of time to communicate – we only get one chance. It is either going to be worth it for our audience to stick with our message, or it is going to be ignored completely. This is the brutal reality now, though you could argue it was ever thus.

Our audience is, more than ever, saturated with media – by their own choice as much as by ready availability. What it means is that, despite the best intentions of people who might find your message and even keep the link to concentrate on your message later, few will return to your piece. So it needs to attract the right audience at first glance, then keep their attention just long enough for the message to be conveyed – and hopefully be memorable. Because they are unlikely to give it a second thought.

There is also such a flurry of imagery and messaging that there is constant distraction – where ads used to distract from magazine articles, online articles not only have ads, but pop-ups, animations and numerous other interruptions.

There is still an importance placed on concept, though you cannot afford to be too subtle.

Your production ‘craft’ needs to be high to ensure that there is no jarring of the message due to wrong notes in the design:

  • no typos or grammatical errors over which a reader might stumble (or begin to doubt the credibility of the author)
  • consistent use and application of heading styles
  • wise type selection that will aid readability, attract attention, trigger associations with time and place, and accurately convey the hierarchy of information.

There is no time to edit for multiple outputs – so there must be one true text document that, through markup, can be reconfigured into multiple outputs.

Let’s move on to some practicalities. This is a series of observations that will hopefully give you some food for thought and some areas to consider when optimising your design.

Imagery is ubiquitous. You used to have to subscribe to image banks, but now access to royalty-free and Creative Commons images is changing how much we see. But, as a result, people are also wanting more original imagery ­– personalised to the client, and showing their own staff, their own buildings, their own products. Commissioning original photography used to be expensive (and still is if you commission professional photographers) but, with their iPhone obsession, many people create their own original photography, and some of it is very good.

With illustrations, photographs, brand marks and images of any kind, components have to be available separately for multiple outputs in different formats. For example, the components of characters, objects and backgrounds must ideally be available on separate layers to allow animation. Components must also be capable of printing on merch!

And it is more important than ever that imagery be available in an almost unlimited ground that will allow cropping (or even autocropping) in square, circle, vertical, horizontal and even extreme horizontal formats. You have electronic billboards and then, instore, vertical point-of-purchase screen displays, business profiles on LinkedIn with horizontal background images and circular portraits, Instagram and Pinterest squares, vertical video formats …

After a long focus on photography, illustration styles are back ‘in’. Photos have lost credibility because anything can be done in photo and image manipulation programs – even video is no longer real with motion capture, etc.

So we have entered another golden age of illustration, particularly naive illustration that is obviously handmade. This obsession with the handmade also includes ‘handmade’ typography – calligraphy, lettering and even collage.

These days, though, it is more likely that illustration will be electronic from conception, created by a stylus on a pad, rather than originating on paper, then being scanned and touched up in an illustration program.

Where once there were image-free typographic publications, now there will be infographics and illustrated charts and diagrams. However, with this, there has developed a particularly daft and desperate infographic-at-all-costs misuse of graphing and charting styles, creating nonsensical comparisons and misreadings.

Every document must be available in at least PDF and HTML formats to allow maximum accessibility and versatility in output.

Digital print is rapidly becoming standard output – with quite affordable high-end digital printers providing output that is virtually indistinguishable from offset-printed product, allowing personalisation and ever smaller print runs, and print on demand, at reasonable prices.

Designers must be able to design for video, animation and sound – including sonic branding. They must understand how to use augmented reality (AR) in the shopping experience and the cultural experience – like the Powerhouse Museum’s app of old Sydney where you point your mobile phone at a building and an equivalent historical image comes up.

Perpetual scrolling is the norm – scrolling left, right, or up and down. Although there is still something to be said for the importance of information ‘above the fold’, the long scroll is no longer to be avoided, contrary to previous advice.

The ‘three clicks rule’ is virtually gone too – though it is still worth considering flat navigation structures. People are happy to keep clicking, as long as they are ultimately rewarded.

Web typography has improved, mostly due to increased screen resolution, so italics that you previously avoided because of ‘jaggies’ (from bitmapping) are now smooth and can fulfil all the usual requirements of them (text emphasis, titles of publications, legal citation, etc).

A word of warning here: most designers design on screen and never print out. This is often obvious –type in many printed documents is too small because they’ve been designed at about 300% of real size on massive screens but the IRL size is too small for easy readability.

Web layout has improved so you can produce quite sophisticated screen layouts – but still need to bear in mind that multiple output devices (and indeed browsers) will interpret your code slightly differently, so you cannot control your layout in every environment.

But, the biggest downside to all this is that there is no time for design or illustration or editing or writing … and it has become very hard for a one-trick pony to make a living. People have devalued the skills of professional designers, illustrators, photographers, editors and writers, because they can do well enough on their own. But do they really?

And doesn’t that come back to the initial point? It is imperative that professionals create a product that communicates immediately with no jarring element to distract the reader who has noticed the message you have crafted.

Achieving clarity in science writing – the smallest words sometimes count the most

Dr Janet Salisbury, ELS, AE, Founder and Director, Biotext1

The world has changed quite a bit since I started my science writing and editing career in 1990. And so have I. Fresh out of many years working in medical research, I had a lot of knowledge about my own area of science, the scientific method and the value of science in society. But I had a lot to learn about the pitfalls of writing about science issues for a general audience and the intricacies of scientific style. In the early 1990s, in Australia as elsewhere, the tension around new, emerging technological solutions to human activities and problems (such as building, food production, environmental management and human medicine) was intensifying, and the trust and esteem in which science and scientists had traditionally been held were being eroded. I quickly became fascinated by how the words that we use to report science could help or hinder this situation. Since then, the issues that the world faces have become more complex, and pressures from different perspectives make the job of holding a line on what is verifiable scientifically ever harder. Climate change is one case in point. Immunisation is another. This means that paying great attention to the language we use to describe science is all the more important. Surprisingly, one little everyday word – ‘no’ – is the source of many problems! An example that will be familiar to Australians is the risk of contracting mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos.

Risk is the source of much public tension about science. In the case of asbestos exposure, as for many other environmental exposures, people understandably don’t want to be put at risk. They want there to be ‘no risk’. The difficulty in communicating risk for chemical exposures such as asbestos is that, although risk diminishes with dose, there is no cut-off below which we can categorically say that there is no risk. This is a common problem in science. It’s not the fault of the scientists, or because we are not looking hard enough. It’s the laws of chemistry and physics, and it is just the way it is. So we can only really talk about a ‘very low risk’, and it becomes a societal issue to decide what is an ‘acceptable risk’ (eg when balanced against benefits). For asbestos, this is further complicated because there is also no such thing as ‘no exposure’. Because asbestos is a natural mineral, all air contains a measurable (very low) level of asbestos fibres. When unwary writers or editors allow the terms ‘no exposure’ and ‘no risk’ to creep into their writing, they can create a minefield of public confusion and expectations that can’t be met.

Unfortunately, our everyday language does not have the linguistic precision that science requires. Qualitative adjectives like ‘high’ and ‘low’ mean different things to different people. And when you add other modifiers like ‘very’, ‘extremely’, ‘quite’ and so on, the layers of nuanced meaning increase, and the separation of scientific and perceived meaning widens. Consider this sentence about asbestos: ‘Although there is absolutely no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres, occasional exposure to low levels of fibres poses only a low risk to your health’. This sentence was written by a committee for a booklet for home owners about asbestos exposure.2 One might ask ‘how low is low?’ (for both fibres and risk). And is it fair to say ‘only’ a low risk when the risk is a deadly disease? Isn’t any risk to be avoided?

I believe that the first question (how low is low?) is best answered visually through infographics showing the components of risk in terms of dose (in the case of asbestos, this is the number of fibres inhaled) and the frequency of exposure in different situations, such as natural exposure, household DIY, building tradespeople, and the asbestos industry.3 The second question (why ‘only’ a low risk?) is much harder to answer because it is value-laden – and that is where the tension arises between the science-based expertise that underpins the statement and the community knowledge about potential suffering and disease if this risk, however small, is realised. Can we resolve this tension? I have reluctantly come to realise that this probably can’t be achieved through language alone – however hard we try to reword the information to accommodate both the precise meaning of the science and the perceptions of the community. But by giving great care to the words and images used, we can at least expose the problem for what it is and nudge the public discussion in the direction of better understanding, leading to consensus.

1www.biotext.com.au
2Australian Government Department of Health (2013). Asbestos: a guide for householders and the general public, page 17.
3Asbestos: a guide for householders and the general public, pages 16 and 19.