How to Design Your Graphics for Effective Communication, Part 2

Part 1 of this series presented a series of organizational patterns seen as basic content structures, such as the patterns of chronology, sequence, space, comparison and contrast, or cause and effect. The question was asked, “Which one of these patterns would best showcase the elements that I want obviated by my graphic design?” 

In Part 2, we will be discussing a basic approach to creating the underlying framework of an effective graphic.

How can designers ensure that the intended message comes across clearly in the graphics they create?

ONE THING USEFUL for beginning designers and non-design specialists would be to write a short purpose statement of what you are trying to accomplish and communicate by using graphics in your design. If you can’t clearly and unambiguously state with words what you are trying to communicate to the audience, you won’t be able to communicate that purpose clearly through the graphic you design, either. The purpose of your communication should be central to what is communicated to the audience; the “coolness” of a new infographic tool, color-combination template, neat font or latest tech-tool trick or trend, or whatever else distracts us, can work against clarity and effectiveness, making communication of intended meaning a hit-or-miss endeavor.

By zeroing in on your purpose through the written statement, you will be able to pull out some verbs and key concepts to clue you into the pattern of visual organization to best illustrate your information. For example, if you have a purpose statement that says something about illustrating the negative and positive issues involved in the “digital divide” you will see that several of the words—“negative/positive” and “divide”—point to a Compare and Contrast Pattern; in fact, such words almost beg the use of an illustration that divides the design space into two or more parts. If the pattern that is most implied by the words you use is not the type of organization that would best illustrate your point, you might consider selecting new words to better match whatever organizational pattern you envision for your message or else, make it very clear through your illustration why your words work against the grain of preconceived patterns.

The point is that going down “underneath the skin” of any graphic should tell you something about the graphics’ structure, about the basic idea, conceptual model, or organizational mode to drive your point forward or to frame the illustration. In creating a graphic to communicate something, you need to know what specifically you want to say before you start designing. If you structure your design with an organizational framework based on the “skeleton” of purpose, the details will follow from there, helping you know what creative method to use to design the artifact. Your message will get across to your audience with less ambiguity and more clarity, so that the audience will more quickly absorb and more thoroughly retain the information you present. You would be surprised how many people do not do this simple preparatory work before they put together a chart, figure, or graphic element.

A great process starts with a purpose statement, moves on to sketching a prototype, asks for user input at any and all stages, and then, makes decisions about what sort of software is needed for composing the graphic.

— Susan LaVelle


Skeleton Typogram by Aaron Kuehn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

How to Design Your Graphics for Effective Communication, Part 1

I thought that it might be helpful to post some information to help beginners and non-designers plan out and design graphics that communicate what you want or need to say. There are a lot of things that go into making a good user-centered design and here I can only mention a few aspects to help you think through the basic underpinnings of your graphical presentation of information.


Cartoon, problems in communication solved by putting the correct idea into another's head.

Munroe, Randall. “Xkcd: Communication.” Web log post.  Xkcd: Communication. ©Creative Commons, Web. 08 April 2014.


AS A FUNDAMENTAL POINT, it is important to understand what you are trying to say— to understand the “What” and to say it—and not something else. What you want to say should be clear and unambiguous, so that the audience will be able to visually grasp the structure in which you are organizing the information; the way that you organize the information should also match as much as possible the real-world structure of whatever you are trying to represent.


For example, if you wanted to show the structure of a course you teach, you might make a orange circle (labeled “Teacher”), encircled by smaller blue triangles, (each of which is labeled with the individual class participants’ names). A “Key” is needed to make clear to the user whatever meanings are assigned to code the colors and shapes on that graphic. Top it with a “Title”  and “Caption” it below. Don’t forget to add any citation information that denotes the source permissions and copyright details of the graphic, including the website URL and date of website access.

A graphic explaining the point.

KEY:   Orange = Teacher and Blue = Student; Circle = Class administrator and Triangle = Participant


The graphic’s structure maps the real-world organization you want to illustrate.

The audience sees the organization of such a chart, graphic, or picture and understands and absorbs the information more easily, because the graphic representation of the information visualizes the real-world order of—in this instance—a particular classroom structure, helping the viewers of the graphic store the new information in their memories in a way that makes sense and aids information recall. Such a graphic would match the real-world organization and hierarchy to the visual design chosen for the graphic to place it in the memory as a match for the thing remembered: The graphic looks like the thing it represents. The viewer’s memory will store such a structure along with the details, and so, the information, as a whole, can be recalled in much more of its entirety when needed by the user.


A well-designed graphic will order information with clarity and precision, so that the viewer grasps both an overview of a body of information, which enlightens the viewer to a structural whole—or in other words, the big picture—and also focuses the viewer’s attention on “close-ups” of each discrete bit of information, which comprise the individual parts of that whole. A good graphic might indicate true hierarchies and patterns of order between the various elements of the information, for example, the nested sets and subsets within a dataset (e.g., administrators and the employees of their departments), the time sequence between different actions (e.g., “First you beat two eggs, then add sugar…”), or several completely conflicting elements (e.g., “Not this…, but this…”).


Additionally, before designing a graphic, you want to ask yourself several questions about the nature of the information that you want to show and about the way you want to show it. Information can be arranged in various ways and here are just a few, which I found on a website from the University of Washington, where more detail about organizing information into patterns can be found (

•          Chronological Patterns

•          Sequential Patterns

•          Spatial Patterns

•          Compare – Contrast Patterns

•          Advantages – Disadvantages Patterns

•          Cause – Effect Patterns

•          Problem – Solution Patterns

•          Topical Patterns

You should ask yourself the question, “Which one of these patterns would best showcase the elements that I want obviated by my graphic design?” Sometimes the information you want to explicate can be shown using several methods (infographics, tables, graphs, figures, etc.) but not all of those modes will match your intended purpose in creating the graphic. You should understand which basic approach to use for clearly communicating your intended meaning to your audience, the user of the design; you should be clear about your intentions before you start designing.

— Susan LaVelle

InformationDesign-Cast: Thinking


Image by licensed under Creative Commons.

In this episode, we discuss thinking (or maybe not thinking) in terms of how a viewer doesn’t want to think. Designers need to put a lot of thought into items that are intuitive or self-explanatory.

Listen to this episode of the podcast on thinking



Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Social media and your ID goals

The limitations and disadvantages of using social media are especially obvious when poor planning or imprudent word choice leads to legal suits, firings, divorces, laughs on late-night comedy, politicians losing the public trust, and more, all because someone did not think before they posted. The saying that a carpenter should “Measure twice, cut once” should be applied to posting, in “Think twice—thrice, or more—then post.” A genie can’t be put back into the bottle after it is let out, so any comment or posting that you make online, whether done in an “on or off” professional attitude, can’t be undone.

Cartoon Image with 2 executives discussing social media without considering the consequences


Avoiding this kind of trouble has layers beneath its surface: even when posting in a professional capacity—for example, posting comments as an editor on an editor’s forum—you can easily be misunderstood or forget to put yourself into the shoes of the audience or say something that has rhetorical implications that you did not realize at first. A quickly turned-out comment or posting might have negative consequences to you professionally if you don’t take the time to read (and reread) what you have written before you post.

Just like in all writing, you must analyze your posting according to: audience, tone, point of view, voice, vocabulary, grammar, and so on. Obviously, you should reflect your professional sound judgment by bias-free word usage, no typos, good graphics, etc. in all your social media interactions.

However, having said all that, posting on forums, commenting on blogs, tweeting, and using other interactive social media are great ways to make professional contacts, provided you understand the forum and its audience, and provided you contribute value to the discussion (i.e., where the audience values your contribution as much as you do). I personally have made some good professional editing contacts by judiciously posting on LinkedIn discussion forums about things within my sphere of expertise.

With that as a foundation, here is a major way that social media could support your ID goals: your social media comments can place your site and message within a context of the shared space of the whole professional community and its messages. In other words, use of social media gives you opportunities to project yourself both thoughtfully and with discretion and precision to impress an audience of users or at least increase your visibility. These users make up your target audience. Social media use helps you to keep up with your profession as it changes, as you follow those resources—whether individuals, publications, businesses—that let you in on cutting edge topics and new technologies, online spaces, discussions, problems, solutions, and change-leaders; social media use also lets you represent yourself or your business professionally.

You show your ability to contribute value to these discussions as you enter the shared space of your professional community, and then, you continue to update yourself as the space grows and changes. You link to what will benefit you and link others to that benefit; you update continuously to change along with the changes that are continuously happening around you.

—Susan LaVelle

Conventions in Information Design

What are Conventions?

A convention is a “rule, method, or practice established by usage.” *

In Information Design, conventions refer to what users expect from previous experience reading documents and/or using websites.

We encounter design conventions every day, on almost everything we read. The designers of web pages, billboards, and even food packaging take advantage of conventional placement and type hierarchy to supply information in a way users will understand.

Examples of Conventions:

Document Design Conventions:
Headings located at the top of relevant text sections in large font
Page numbers located at the bottom of each page
Image captions located beneath relevant image in small font

Web Design Conventions:
Logo located in the top left corner of the page
Search box located on the homepage
Links change color when clicked

Why are Conventions Important?

Every design is a conversation between a designer and a user.

By making use of conventions, designers take advantage of the experience users have had browsing other websites. By showing new users something they’ve already seen, designers create an immediate sense of familiarity in the user.

If a designer places headings, navigation, and search boxes where users expect to find them, the cognitive workload of the user is reduced. This allows users to concentrate on what a designer is trying to convey in a website or document, rather than how to navigate it.

Violated Conventions:

Designers should not violate convention thoughtlessly or in a way that creates more work for users. Otherwise, users can go elsewhere.

However, there are not hard and fast rules in design. Some designers make a conscious choice to break convention and it can be successfully done. The key is to be mindful of the cohesive power of conventions.

—Catherine Krecke


Controlling your Home Page: The Designer as “Smothers’ Mother”


Image of Record Album cover, Smothers Brothers, "Mom Always Liked You Best!" with one brother having an overabundance of gifts on his side and the other brother only having a chicken.

© Smothers Brothers All rights reserved.
Accessed on December 5, 2013

Deciding what to feature on a “Home Page” is challenging. Bringing organization stakeholders to participate in that discussion can make this even more complex. Multiple perspectives provide information, but too often disparate stakeholder agendas enter the discussion. Similar to Tommy and Dick Smothers’ mother, a designer for an organization page cannot usually accommodate all interests equally. Consequently, designers can face conflict or resentment over who gets picked for Home Page “top billing.” By being aware of this risk, and by taking early steps to address it, designers can diminish the effects of unproductive stakeholder agendas.

(1)    Steve Krug, in “Don’t Make Me Think – A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” emphasizes that above all, the designer must have a concept of “the big picture” that drives the Home Page content. Krug cautions against adding any Home Page content that distracts from a big picture of “what the site is.” Developing and communicating that picture sets the context for development decisions of what to include.

(2)    Explain to stakeholders that the purpose of the home page is to deliver the user to the featured (stakeholder) content pages, not to establish a hierarchy of worth.

(3)    Establishing and following systematic decision-making processes helps to legitimize organizational decisions on Home Page content.

(4)    Communicating that process to stakeholders before making decisions should lead to better control of Home Page content.

Thankfully, Smothers’ mother did not follow this advice, leading instead of one of the funniest comeback lines in comedy. For an information design, however, designing a purposeful and productive Home Page requires us to be kind to all of our “children” by considering and addressing organizational stakeholder interests.

—Brian Wyneken