Design for Art or Clarity?

When creating images for digital or print, an important distinction must be made regarding our reasons for creating the image in the first place. A painter or photographer might create art for personal or artistic expression alone. But if you are creating images to communicate a message, market a product, or promote an action, then whatever distracts or confuses from your message or purpose should be avoided. The whole basis of this Information Design blog is to help us to understand the distinctions needed for using the abundantly available technologies of digital creation. A typical user of creative apps and software is not automatically prepared for user- or audience-centeredness just by learning the technology of making an image. Too often, the images created by novices appeal to the designer’s (or a similar someone’s) taste, preferences, or biases, rather than to what is meaningful to the audience. Unless the creator is the sole audience for it, an image needs to have accessibility, in other words, user-centeredness, at its core.

In this ID blog, I have already touched on purpose, audience, and clarity of message several times. Those posts are good reminders that the ever more easily accessed software tools and apps for creating and editing images for our everyday and business use must be seen in terms of who the image is for, what are we trying to communicate, and will the message get through the image.

Too often, we get distracted and start asking ourselves or our friends how we like a color, shape, placement, or font, without thinking about what an intended user will think about it or how it will look to them. Sometimes we don’t even ask, “Who is my audience?” or “Why am I making this?”

To illustrate this point: take color-blindness.

How do we design for color blind users?

There are several different kinds of †color blindness, but the most common ones relate to how the viewer sees red and green. *There are about 330 million men in the world (12%) and almost 20 million women (0.5%) with color blindness. How often do we think about how well this fairly large demographic sees our images?

It is fairly simple to check our images to see how they will look to people with color blindness. A number of browser apps allow you to upload your image to check how it would appear to a person with one of the several types. Any image saved to a JPG or PNG can be uploaded §for free to check that the image is clear or at least acceptably close to how you hoped it would look. Perhaps upon checking, some color changes might improve the image for the color blind without requiring a complete design makeover. Making those changes might make a big difference to the appearance of your image for the user. You’re unlikely to completely avoid every issue, since several types of color blindness seem to have almost the opposite visual effect from others. However, giving it a try to be sure that your font color, for example, has the proper contrast to a background color will make a big difference if you want someone to read your action button and buy your product.

Another accessibility issue to consider, and here color blindness can also provide a good example, is that before you even choose the colors for your image or brand, you should see how those colors look to people with color blindness. I have used the great free app,, to select brand colors and colors for images. This wonderful app allows you to generate whole color palettes with the Hex code and other numerical identifiers, and to export the palette image for your use. I would encourage anyone to run their palette through the Coolers’ colorblindness viewer, which can be found at the top menu once you have created a palette (i.e., the colorblindness viewer is found by clicking the icon that looks like a pair of glasses, see Figure 1), from there, you will be able to view the colors from various color blindness types.

Figure 1: With see your brand palette through the eyes of those with color blindness.

For example, one might create a call-to-action button using two brand colors. The color distinctiveness required for the user to read what action was requested might be obscured for a person who is color blind so that they are unable to take the action you are hoping to encourage. The text might be readable, but the colors might be “yucky looking” for your user and discourage them from your site. As you can see from the following pictures (Figure 2) from the Healthline blog, what seems like a nice colorful set of surfboards will appear very differently to a colorblind eye.

Figure 2: Normal vs protanopia (If you have protanopia, you’re “red-blind,” which makes red colors look greener.)

It is unlikely that you can create images perfectly viewable to every user, particularly with color blindness. Too often, though, image creators don’t do any research about this issue and only design for their own tastes and preferences—yes, their own biases—which makes their image designs fall short of the mark when it comes to good design and user-centeredness. Artful design might please one’s own sense of artiness, but will not necessarily reach the audience for your intended message.

* According to the World population statistics of male and female,

† See also the very detailed article on Color blindedness on Wikipedia,

§ Here is one such browser app where you can check how your image appears for various types of color blindness. Or, Google, “How can I tell how my image looks to the color blind?” to find more options.

Propaganda Files 2

I published this on my LinkedIn page before the last presidential election (July 23, 2016), but I am re-posting it here because it examines both how visuals are distinct artifacts from the accompanying text and also how mixing propaganda (intentional misdirection or misinformation) with attempts to provide “real” or truthful information confuses the audience—an audience who will have to work very hard to separate fact from fiction. Reposting this seemed to be an appropriate follow-up to my previous blog entry, “Propaganda Files 1.”

Screen Shot Trump article MGM movie 1984 2016-07-22 at 8.31.21 AM

From the film Nineteen Eighty-Four  2005.


Since one of my primary professional concerns as a user advocate is how users see the information communicated to them, this article from the Facebook feed grabbed my attention. The article’s author had analyzed Donald Trump’s acceptance speech for his nomination to be the candidate for President from the Republican Party. The article from the NYTimes online itself seems balanced and fair and generally keeps away from arguing a side, but instead, presents statistics that either would support or challenge Trump’s claims.

For the most part, the NYT article’s authors managed to state points clearly, keeping an informational tone. I believe that the article helps people who want further information to be able to research for themselves the various claims made in the speech, without too much interference by the author’s personal viewpoints. The references are there so that anyone who wants can fact-check the fact-checkers. My view is that an audience should examine all the issues to make informed decisions based on research done with an open mind. Whatever resources will aid people in that task are useful tools, as far as I am concerned.

Since writers, information designers, and graphic designers do not usually serve in the same job functions in organizations as large as the NYTimes, someone other than the author of the text of the article must have selected the image for the Facebook feed and edited the image for the newsfeed posting. The  purpose of adding an image to the newsfeed is to grab the FB audience’s attention and get them to click through to the article, whereupon, the audience is encouraged to subscribe to the Times. 


However, I just wanted to point out that the choice made in selecting the image to accompany the analytical article for the Facebook promotion (see image below) shows how VISUAL RHETORIC colors the impact of information for an audience.This all serves to show how—for the audience—reading and digesting the article rationally is one thing, but being subliminally persuaded via the accompanying images, is quite another one.

Image by Josh Haner ©2016 The New York Times

The selection of an image showing a giant screen view of Donald Trump pulls out of our subconscious every thing we have ever heard concerning the phrase, “Big Brother is Watching You,” from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and in fact, the image chosen for the NYT’s Facebook blurb is highly reminiscent of the MGM movie version of that book; the movie was released in the year 1984 and it starred Richard Burton and John Hurt (see image at top of post). [This movie is rated for adults because of some sexual content (R).] I recommend the movie and, most especially, I recommend Orwell’s book. Everyone should read the book, 1984. The book shows a world in which persuasion has become coercion on every level, backed by the powerful arm of a state that has stripped the populace of any individuality, conscience, privacy, or civil liberties.

Whatever you think of Trump, I wanted to point out the subtle (or not so subtle) use of images on this Facebook newsfeed blurb that attempt to subliminally persuade you that Donald Trump is going to institute a regime similar to what is found in Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future.

In my opinion, the text of the article does a very good job of showing from a rational standpoint some reasons to question Mr. Trump and his candidacy. However, the image used to accompany the newsfeed makes an emotional (non-reasoning) argument in order to awaken doubts about the candidate without having to back them up with facts–just like Mr. Trump’s speech.

For example, the way that Trump uses fear and exaggeration to paint a picture of a dire situation—that only he sees and only he can fix—is truly a misuse of facts and stretching of the truth to convince people to vote FOR him. How ironic that the visual rhetorician placing and choosing the image for the Facebook feed uses the same tactics, fear and exaggeration, to convince you to vote AGAINST him. Since I can’t know the motivation of whoever chose the image or the photographer for the photo used in the Facebook blurb, I, of course, can’t know definitively why that particular photo was selected. I can see the name of the photographer (Image by Josh Haner/The New York Times) captioning a video article, with the title, “Trump Speech Casts US in Dark Light,” about halfway down the page on the NYTOnline article. *

However, professionals don’t just randomly place images on a page. The photo on the Facebook newsfeed blurb was not the image featured in the article. Rather, the article featured a normal-sized image of Trump at the podium, just like any candidate ready to start a speech. Obviously, this particular large-scale image of the hall, with Trump at the podium, surrounded by masses of people, with the backdrop of a giant-screen close-up of his face, must have been selected over innumerable other possibilities. The obvious connection made is that Donald Trump is just like Orwell’s powerful party leader, riding the wave of a cult of personality, like those of “the party” in Orwell’s book. Whether this is true or not is not my point. Of course, if the photo of Trump in a hall with giant screens of his face was taken, it must be true that he actually appeared like that in real life. However, the selection of that particular shot at that particular moment to represent that particular text is completely a rhetorical and persuasive choice made by someone involved in the process who is not the same person who wrote the article or even the same person who chose the page shots for the online newsfeed or presumably, the hard copy newspaper.

My point is that we as the audience for information need to be aware that images are being used rhetorically in communications and the information we receive can be twisted around by the visuals framing it (see my post on “Framing“).

Images are powerful, persuasive tools that often work their persuasion on the edges of our conscious mind. I would have us be aware of what is being said to us, even in our unconscious minds, so that we are fully informed, and able to pose reasoned arguments and refute those we disagree with rationally, rather than posing and refuting strictly by emotional means.

By paying attention to and questioning what you see, you can bring what is not noticed more fully into the purview of your reasoning skills to give you more control of the messages that you receive, believe, and send to others. 

* Listening to this video and reading this article again is very, very interesting from the vantage point of nearly two years into the future, since the talking points in Trump’s speech can be analyzed from our current vantage point for truth and perspective;  I would encourage everyone to do just that.



For Further Information:

Read the NYTimes article here:

“Fact Checking the Truth That Donald Trump Has Promised” 

Buy the book 1984:

Link to purchase George Orwell's book 1984 on Amazon.

Click here to buy the book 1984 by George Orwell in paperback on Amazon.

References Cited:

Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel Signet.

Radford, Michael, John Hurt, and Richard Burton. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 2005.

Shear, Michael D, and Nick Corasaniti. “Fact-Checking the Truth That Donald Trump Promised.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 July 2016,

10 Commandments of Usability

The 10 Commandments of Good Website Usability, Jacob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,” are not actually commandments at all, but rather heuristics, or a kind of exploratory underlayment for creating guidelines for usable design.

Commandments or not, ignoring these principles should only be done purposefully, not out of ignorance. Everyone who designs information packages that might find their way onto the web (What information packages won’t find their way onto the web?) should know these usability principles and apply them as needed in their designs. You need to have good reasons not to follow established design principles for usability—and you must be objective, not subjective, in your approach. Don’t just say, “I don’t need that. I know what I want.” Too often those who create websites or write content for them don’t know good principles for user-centered design. At some point in the future, I hope to put together a blog series to help us flesh out how these specific principles. In the meantime, the 10 Commandments of Usability will help us form a solid foundation for creating good user-centered communication.

The audience or user is the center of what goes on in any communication, because

to communicate is to transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood.”

When you communicate, you impart information to someone; you share that discreet unit of information—from you to other—so that you can have commonality with whoever receives it.

Once received, the ideas about the communicated information may change from the intended purpose of the sender, for example, the person receiving the communication may accept the information as factual or reject it as false; may be enraged or impassioned by it; may be swayed to act or discouraged from acting; may seek for more information or be satisfied with what they already know. Communication is a much more difficult and troublesome event than simply posting, saying, or writing something. Communication is not information upload.


Communication is not mechanical upload.

The mechanical approach (input > output) to communication has been all too common, however, and there are no signs that this is really changing, despite the availability of online information.  True, businesses and other entities, including individuals, increasingly are concerned with users and audience; we should be glad about that. Information about how to do a better job of designing for users is so much more accessible these days. For example, Nielsen’s Heuristics are easily found in multiple places online and, in fact, you can sign up to receive regular academically researched articles and updates from the Nielsen–Norman Group to improve your familiarity with usability principles. I would encourage you to do so.

The chance to become a better communicator on every level, including writing and designing for the web, is made much more accessible because of the Internet, everyone knows that. However, the broadening of the accessibility has also made the availability of web creating tools more pervasive and so has spread bad design and insensitivity to audience farther and wider than ever before.

How can these 10 “not-commanded” Commandments of Usability be useful to us generally in our day-to-day communication acts?

Can those people that find themselves creating content—whether on the web or anywhere else—find any principles that bring value to us when we create our designs? I hope to write a series of blogs in this year to discuss how these 10 principles apply to our communication events and designed artifacts.


“Communicate.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 28 May 2016.

“Abbott & Costello Who’s On First.” YouTube. Koch Entertainment, n.d. Web. 28 May 2016. <;.

Mind reading machine. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” (08:03)