Like most eighth-graders, each student in our class was tasked with creating a science fair project as our major final grade for the year. You know, the typical printed-pages-with-diagrams-glued-to-a-folding-posterboard science fair project—at least that’s how we did it in 2003.
At the time, it was our big opportunity to really get creative. Like, bust out the glitter and decorative-edged scissors creative. The find the finest and most colorful WordArt known to humankind sort of decorative. Each of us had an entire blank white tri-fold board just begging for our creative touch—oh, and a little bit of scientific text, too, which, although carried the greatest weight of our final grade, was decidedly secondary in the minds of most students—to us, it was all about designing the coolest board possible.
While everybody (myself included) got caught up in the prospect of unlimited visual flair and a vomit of colors and the snazziest fonts Microsoft Word 2000 could afford us (Curlz MT, anyone? Jokerman? Chiller?!), our teacher provided us with an important reminder that’s stuck with me for the past decade and a half.
Sure—if you want, run your parents’ inkjet printers dry with the number of colors emblazoned on your board. Cut up as much construction paper as you desire. But, remember, above all else, the person looking at your project board should understand what to read, and in what order.
“Even if you need to use strings of red yarn to draw lines to where I’m supposed to read,” — I can still remember Mr. Lee’s voice, and the giggling response of our class when he dropped this tip. Surely, nobody would disgrace their beautiful creations with bright red lines of yarn!
But he was serious—and he had a point we’d all overlooked.
Typically, students would get so caught up in either the content of their project’s board or the visual design of the board itself (again, the latter being far more likely) they’d lose perspective of the reader. With illustrations and graphs and cut-out paragraphs haphazardly plopped around a tri-fold board, the typical reading experience was cumbersome at best.
Nobody designing a visually stunning science fair project thought about the experience of the person perusing rows of poster boards in the school gym — the person with little time to spare who wanted to absorb your message, but also the messages of a hundred other students’ projects.
Even something as strikingly utilitarian as lines of red yarn directing attention and leading the eye through a busy science fair project board would do wonders for the reader. When someone would follow the lines of bright red yarn through each piece of cut-out paper with a WordArt heading, the content — the stuff by which the majority of our grade was determined—would resonate more. The words and illustrations would make more sense.
Image source: http://sciencefair.math.iit.edu/display/layoutflow/
Mr. Lee’s red yarn lesson is an important one that applies to design projects reaching far wider than our eighth-grade science fair boards. When you’re designing for screens, you need to look beyond the visuals and ensure the flow and intended actions of your creation align with the reader’s goals.
In other words, it’s good to over-communicate when you design. Obviousness is more important than the visual alone. Think about what someone’s trying to do, and how you can make their task even easier. Or, better than just thinking about how a person works, put something (a prototype or mockup is fine!) in front of that person and see if they can perform their task without frustration or confusion. Nudging someone with soft hints and guiding them along a workflow will help keep them focused on completing the task at hand or consuming your message in the way you intended.
You don’t need to use a piece of red yarn, but don’t forget to think about content flow above all else — not just the visuals.
About Steve Luvender
Steve Luvender is a Senior User Experience Designer at Liquid Interactive, where he works with organizations to design and implement solutions that delight people and create business results.