The Ingredients Of Effective Communication

Communication is central to web design. Communication has two parts, the message, and the delivery or package of the message. Is one more important than the other? Can communication happen if only one is present?

A couple months ago I came across a quote on the site of Massimo and Lella Vignelli about design and communication. Its begins:

Whatever we do, if not understood, fails to communicate and is wasted effort. We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless.

More recently I came across a Wired article by Anne Trubek on proper spelling along with a rebuttal by Lee Simmons.

All 3 are concerned with the 2 aspects of communication, message and package.

A corked bottle floating in the water

Is the Message More Important than the Package?

The Vignelli quote and Ann Truant’s article share something in common. Both assert the importance of the message over how the message is packaged. To Vignelli, if communication is lost then everything was a waste. To Truant the package (in this case the spelling) can be imperfect as long as the message gets through.

Lee Simmons rebuttal to Truant’s article argues that the packaging is important, because it enables the message to be understood. To make it’s final point the rebuttal closes with a quote from Truant’s article.

Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity.

All 3 are essentially right. The message is certainly more important than its packaging. Take an extreme case where a fire is raging and you’re trying to communicate the danger to someone who doesn’t know. Whether you scream fire in a panic or cooly say the word fire, the important thing is for the person to understand your message.

At the same time packaging plays a role. Cooly and calmly saying fire to someone doesn’t convey the direness of the situation. The person might incorrectly assume there is no immediate danger since you don’t appear to be all that concerned while delivering the message. Scream fire while flailing about in panic is a much more effective way of getting the entirety of the message across.

If your message is understood, how it was communicated is mostly irrelevant, however how it was communicated can greatly influence understanding of the message.

  • Spelling and grammar are part of the package in written communication
  • Aesthetics are part of the package in graphic communication
  • Speech rhythms are part of the package when telling a story

Each helps set the context for which the message is interpreted and ultimately understood. Consider the following

  • How are you?
  • how R U?

The above 2 questions convey the same message, but also convey very different impressions. You get a different sense of the person asking the question and a different sense in how you should respond.

Visit a handful of websites and without reading the main text, think about the visual impression each instantly conveys and how that impression will lead you to interpret the text. Consider how people you know tell stories. You probably don’t absorb as much from those who talk in a monotone voice and cadence.

The package helps shape the message.

Audience at LeWeb 11 Les Docks-9308

Know Your Audience and Medium

The message is still the most important thing, however the package, the delivery of the message plays an important role. There’s no single way to package every message for maximum communication, though. How do you choose or create the best package?

There are several things to consider.

  • Message — the package should enhance the message
  • Audience — the package should be appropriate for the audience
  • Medium — the package should work within the limitations of the medium

If your packaging isn’t doing all of the above then something is wrong. You’ve probably chosen the wrong packaging, but it’s also possible you’re delivering the message to the wrong audience or through the wrong medium. There’s nothing wrong typing “how r u” in an instant message to a friend. It’s not appropriate in the cover letter for a job application.

Message, package, audience, and medium are all connected and if your message isn’t getting through any one or all of them could be the culprit.

On the other hand if you’re criticizing the packaging stop for a moment and consider if it’s appropriate given message, audience and medium. Sure, “how r u” is incorrect, but is it inappropriate given the audience and medium?

Student design for honey in a hexagonal package

Designers as Packagers

Much of what we do as web designers is work with the packaging. We usually aren’t creating the message itself, though at times we might. More often we’re tasked with trying to understand the message our clients want to convey to their audience and then we create a package to communicate the message in one or more mediums.

Vignelli is right. If the message isn’t understood it’s all been wasted effort. Anne Truant is right. The package is less important than the message and there’s no one right package for every message. Lee Simmons is also right. The package we create to deliver the message can both help and hinder understanding of the message.

Designing and developing a website is about doing your best to understand what messages need to be communicated to what audiences. These we get through conversations with our clients and research of the client’s industry. We combine this with the knowledge we continue to gain about the medium in which we work. Only then can we truly create the package.

Design principles, techniques in development, proper spelling, rules of grammar are tools we learn and use to better create a package. None are absolutes. They’re guidelines meant to help us communicate a message to a particular audience through a particular medium.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

7 comments

  1. Steve, this is another great article. I may be old school, but I believe that the packaging is part of the message and can’t be ignored. In fact, at times the package can send stronger signals about the message than the words themselves.

    • Thanks David. I definitely believe the packaging is part of the message. I don’t see how I could believe otherwise as someone who designs websites.

      Good point about the packaging being able to send strong signals than the words. Sarcasm is a pretty good and simple example. The words alone convey the exact opposite message than intended.

  2. Great article. A saying I’ve noticed doesn’t appear as often as before is “A Picture is worth a thousand words”, showing that we tend to communicate with our eyes first in a way.

    We buy our favorite things because of how they look and what we feel as if they support.

    On some level, we have to get back to the basics.

  3. Thanks David. Maybe we’ve forgotten how valuable pictures are with all the video online. :)

    Definitely true about how we purchase things. I don’t think we all like to admit it, but we often choose the product that looks the nicest above all else.

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