Manual design questions? (Take II)

Subject: Manual design questions? (Take II)
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 15:13:52 -0500

Bruce Byfield wonders: <<Usability and overall impression? Where do these
come from, if not from design. Aside from very broad issues, such as whether
the design makes people want to read the manual at all, how the information
is arranged has a major effect on how easy the manual is to read and scan.
Similarly, simply changing the font for body text can change whether a
company's public face is conservative or innovative. However, these
perceptions usually go unnoticed because
they take place below the level of consciousness. Everyone is much less
rational than they like to think.>>

I don't think we're disagreeing on this. My take on design is that in our
field, a successful design is one that goes largely unnoticed: if the reader
spends any significant amount of time musing about the wonders of the design
rather than getting work done, we've pretty much blown it as designers.
That's not to say a design can't be aesthetic and functional, only that the
former mustn't interfere with the latter. It's also not to say that other
forms of technical communication (marketing, for instance) shouldn't make
the design itself have as much impact as the content; an effective marketing
piece needs to stand out from the rest of the crowd, often through visually
compelling design. But even then, the design must not detract from the
desired communication.

When I say that "design" isn't part of the usual notion of branding, my
meaning is perhaps different from what you're thinking. For example, though
the Microsoft and Adobe wordmarks (typeface plus color plus graphical
elements) are instantly recognizable as parts of their overall brand, I
personally couldn't look at two pages excerpted from their respective
manuals and identify which company produced the documentation. Not without
reading until I could recognize what product the manual documented. Ditto
for their online help. _That's_ what I mean about layout and design not
being part of branding: they certainly contribute to the success of the
documentation, and thus to the perception that the brand implies quality
documentation (or its lack <ahem>), but they're not visually part of the
brand itself.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

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