Information and communication
It’s dangerous to assume that the simple presentation of information – technical or otherwise – equates to ‘communication’. It doesn’t. Good information is structured, navigable, quickly accessible, relevant and designed to be quickly and fruitfully assimilated. The creation of this kind of information is a rigorous discipline (and an art) and the same principles apply to its production across nearly all types of media – print or digital.
The paperless argument pre-supposes that digital communication – with its navigability and ability to interlink – must automatically make everything more accessible than the printed page could ever be. This is not necessarily true. Poorly constructed or poorly designed websites, don’t work well. Users get lost or lose interest and the bounce rate will escalate. There are two added factors with poor on-line information: firstly, the user’s ‘patience quotient’ is absolutely minimal. In other words, if we don’t see what we want, or a very clear route to what we want, immediately, we move on immediately. Secondly, the very nature of interactivity invites the user to ‘jump-off’, get lost or otherwise lose his or her place. In other words, even on the best websites, logic and structure are much more difficult to impose than they are in print.
Printed material – as it IS a physical entity – has more weight (literally and metaphorically) and less disposability than its on-line incarnations. It’s narrative logic is set and linear, and if this is properly signposted, it can be a benefit not available to the digital user.
What does well designed and well constructed mean?
Design and structure are inextricably linked when designing for print. Well designed literature will grip the user and guide him or her quickly through the information narrative at the same time as imparting information, simply, directly and memorably. Good design incorporates a number of things:
Literature aimed at specifiers can contain extensive, complex information. A critical part of the design process is therefore to help the user quickly grasp the structure of the information and access the specific elements needed. This means that excellent and intuitive navigational pointers such as clear indexes, contents and sub contents lists, colour coding, physical tabs, divider spreads, page references, ‘more info’ boxes and many more, should form a critical part of the overall design.
Logic and order
Unlike a website, a piece of literature (or a PDF which is ‘designed for print’) has a defined, sequential order. This is good in the sense that the user can’t suddenly/accidentally go off-piste (as is easily the case on a website), but the sequence of information must be logical. There are technical documents such as the CIB masterlist and BS 4940** that offer extensive guidance on how to structure information for construction industry professionals, but in simple terms, the order of information should have the best possible alignment with the specifier’s (or other end users’) thought processes and work practices.
Understanding and using construction products can be a complicated process. Product manufacturers have a tendency to focus rigidly on their products and little else. But products aren’t much use – and certainly don’t get specified – in isolation. So, they need to be described in a solution-based context. This can mean using a fair amount of text to cover things like: compliance with building regulations and standards, performance and properties, design and application options, how to achieve interfaces with other building systems, how to install… and so on. This text must be clear and unambiguous, and whilst as economical as possible, comprehensive, accurate and expressed in language pitched to the specific audience. It’s important, too, to break up textual information into clearly headed, digestible chunks that further aid navigation and understanding.
A combination of images and illustrations. In general terms, the former is designed to create impact and provenance and the latter to inform in specific areas such as design detailing, installation etc.
Design is the art (and science) of bringing all of the above together in a cohesive, attractive, corporate-identity-abiding way so that the end result is always somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Accessibility of information should not be sacrificed for impact. Substance AND style are the objectives combining with fast, effective communication to become the best path to specification.
Where print can have an edge
Of course, laptops, tablets and mobiles are portable, but not to the degree that a piece of printed material is. For print, no connectivity or bandwidth is needed, no battery failure occurs, no problems with dust, dirt or other physical conditions. Literature is robust, can be taken on site, in a briefcase, given away, seen from a wide range of angles, marked up, photocopied, seen at ‘full resolution’ at all times without glare, without plugins or compatibility issues, read and re-read by multiple parties even simultaneously.
Authority and tactility
Printed material inhabits the physical world. With actual volume and weight, it carries with it a gravitas which is not associated with equivalent digital offerings. On-line there is little idea of the extent and depth of a website, even if multiple pages have been visited. A 200 page manual is an immediate statement of commitment, depth of information and substance, not to mention budget. As a self-contained physical object, literature can have the ‘Bible’ factor, the quality of having everything important in one place – therefore being easy to refer to and (if done correctly) find your way around.
Legibility and experience
When communicating large amounts of information especially in text form, the printed page has a definite advantage over the screen. There is no screen fatigue from backlight, no scrolling or enlarging to do, no interruptions (e.g. ads, animated banners, connection loss etc). Everything can be seen in one view, visually absorbed and read easily, allowing the user to assimilate more at a sitting than on-line. Digitally, the user experience is ‘blanded-out’ through a piece of glass (or similar), so physical experience is practically absent. This reduces the value of the process, engagement, and therefore, ultimately the capacity to assimilate. Studies in Scandinavia and the USA indicate that information is generally absorbed and recalled better from the printed page than from the screen†.
Whilst it would be foolish to suggest that the rise of digital communication will not continue to grow, it’s not a Luddite notion to state that there is still a powerful and steady requirement for printed communication in the construction industry. It still remains an important and effective form of communication to specifiers referencing specific product data. It’s highly legible, shareable, tactile and portable. It sounds obvious, but digital is ephemeral: physical is real. So, one might add to these, the capacity to enjoy, as the impact of a well-designed, well-printed physical brochure has more presence than its direct counterpart viewed on screen and can – if done properly – be a pleasure to use.
** Construction industry professionals, of all disciplines, continually receive substantial amounts of product information – hardcopy and digital – mostly unsolicited. Therefore, in order to ensure that the literature receives the maximum attention, professional design skills, preferably with construction industry experience, should be employed or consulted if possible. The British Standards for construction literature, reconfirmed in Nov 2013, are as follows: BS 4940-1:1994. Technical information on construction products and services. Guide for management BS 4940-2:1994. Technical information on construction products and services. Guide to content and arrangement BS 4940-3:1994. Technical information on construction products and services. Guide to presentation BS 4940:1973. Recommendations for the presentation of technical information about products and services in the construction industry. A comprehensive overview of BS 4940, with some good guidance on preparing technical literature, was produced by Pat Ware for the Association of Interior Specialists and can be viewed on the website www.thefis.org
† These studies are focused on the education sector and measure children’s ability to assimilate and process information seen and read on screen compared with similar information seen and read on the printed page.