UK: Government and City literature - some serious information design needed.

UK: Government and City literature - some serious information design needed. - The presentation of important information from government and the City should be more efficient - and legible, says James Woudhuysen.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The presentation of important information from government and the City should be more efficient - and legible, says James Woudhuysen.

One of the great compendiums of information which British designers and managers read all too rarely is the Central Statistical Office's annual Social Trends survey (HMSO, January 1991, £23.50). Reading this year's, I am confirmed in the view (see Management Today, March 1991) that the design of information itself has emerged as a key issue for industry and services in this country.

According to Social Trends, two in every three Britons read a daily paper, and three in every four peruse a Sunday one (page 173). Likewise, in the UK in 1987 one in four people used a library once a month (page 175). Again, between 1981 and 1989 enquiries made of Citizens' Advice Bureaux rose by nearly two thirds to nearly 7.5 million; it was a similar story among law centres, youth counsellors and counsellors to the disabled (page 192).

The British quest for knowledge is remarkable, if only because it was buying, improving or inheriting one's own home which most dominated UK social commentary in the 1980s. A look at the statistics in Social Trends, rather than the commentary, reveals, however, that between 1976 and 1987 the fraction of UK net personal wealth in "dwellings" rose only from 30% to 33.5%. The much more radical change took place in "other financial assets net of liabilities" - assets apart from those held in banks, National Savings, building societies or even in stocks and shares. These other assets rose from 10% to more like 20% of UK net personal wealth (page 95).

The questions that arise here are obvious. What on earth are these "other" assets (the Central Statistical Office itself might care to let us know)? And, given that their growth is only a vaguely perceived phenomenon, is the information surrounding these assets available now, clearly packaged, properly laid out, decently worded and so on? Everything suggests that it is not. People do not know what they are worth, especially in the domain of paper holdings. Here, then, is a major task for designers - and for financial services companies, pensions funds and the like.

For the less well-off the question takes on a different appearance. Do they really know what they are entitled to from the Government? Are they empowered enough, through the data at their disposal, to find their way to and negotiate with the civil and welfare service bureaucracy? Again the evidence is largely negative. Among Citizens' Advice Bureaux outside Scotland, for example, nearly half of the enquiries received relate to social security, employment, tax and justice (page 193).

In the UK as a whole, spending by the Exchequer on goods and services still represents - for all Mrs Thatcher's fine hopes - 20% of gross domestic product, with another 20% accounted for by state grants, loans and pensions (page 109). If the small, illiterate print at the bottom of those new "I WILL get a job" advertisements for JobCentres is anything to go by, there are few grounds for thinking that this massive expenditure goes into systems that are efficient or easy to understand.

Clearly a major priority for British design must be the clarification of the literature of finance and of government. To an Englishman filling out an immigration form on an aeroplane over to the United States, the sight of a sentence saying that the form has been designed in accordance with government legislation is a joy (though I still wind up filling the little white card out wrongly). Of particular importance to Britain is the arena of social security benefits, which - mainly in the form of retirement pensions - are worth nearly 30% of all UK general government spending (page 86). There are big enhancements to the lives of the old and poor which can and should be made here.

In the private and public sectors alike, then, type needs to be bigger, better printed, and on whiter paper. We need fewer sentences in capitals or aimlessly centred, less use of reversed-out type, more but simpler charts and better English. We need forms which contain space for customer comments and suggestions. Mailing addresses and mailing instructions need to be clearly called out at the top of documents. Dispense, please, with those irritating little boxes in which readers are supposed to print their names and other data, letter by capital letter: they are laborious to fill out and lead to more errors.

Probably half of what we print is never read, simply because it is poorly designed. It is time that the City and the Treasury asked some searching questions about this; and it is time that they saved a lot of money by investing in some serious information design.

(James Woudhuysen is managing director of the Exploratory Design Laboratory at Fitch-RS.)

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