Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Elements of Communication, Part 2

September 7, 2007

I notice that I lack some skill in communicating via email or IM. And this is a bit galling to me, as I believe that I communicate fairly well in my articles. At least others have said so from time to time. So what is it that explains my inconsistent communication between articles and emails? After some reflection, I believe that the fault lies with assumed context.

When I write articles I am writing to a specific audience, to be sure. But I do not assume that the context of my article is similar to my standing face–to–face with someone or with a group. Rather, I assume a more distant context and I therefore adopt a more formal and expository tone with my words. I explain better and I make an effort toward clarity. With email, however, I believe I tend to assume a more intimate context, like I’m “talking” to someone face–to–face. My writing is then relatively informal and less expository and detailed, often resulting in unsuccessful communication.

You see, if I were in the presence of someone else, a significant part of my communication would be things other than words, as I noted in part 1 of this article. In a face–to–face encounter, facial expression, tone of voice, hand gestures, body carriage, gaze direction, and a host of more subliminal clues would help to form the message I’d communicate. In fact, those elements would form far more than half of the message. The words would merely confirm the message that my physical attitude put forth.

Design is communication. Therefore, design is beholden to the tenets of communication in its many forms — especially its most fundamental forms.

Whether you know it or not, you, also, are practiced at this form of communication. All human beings are. Physical attitudes, carriage, and gestures form the foundation of human communication. As I noted earlier and despite what most may assume, you rely on the words merely to confirm what you’ve otherwise learned during a conversation.

It is a simple fact that humans do not trust any words when the speaker’s physical attitude suggests something to the contrary. For instance, if you’re at a party and say, “I’m having a great time,” but your facial expression is dour and you roll your eyes and look away when you speak these words, the clear message is that you are not having a good time. No words will convince anyone otherwise.

Given these facts of human communication, I’m sure you can now better appreciate the challenges we face when we attempt to communicate merely with text on a page or screen. We lack reliable, contextual metaphors for communicating the fullness of our message with a textual medium; especially when context might be inaccurately assumed or insufficiently described (designed).

Writing with feeling

Many of you may now be thinking, “But wait! We do have textual metaphors for voice tone, irony, emotion, emphasis, parenthetical statements, and more, right? What about italics, bold text, caps, parenthesis, quotes and the like?” Yes, those are the mechanisms we use to embellish and flavor our written communication. But they are unreliable and often depend on a mutually understood context in order to be effective. I’ve already outlined one problem with assumed context at the start of this article. There are many others.

I’m sure that you’ve experienced at least one instance where your email or someone else’s email caused a misunderstanding. It might have taken you a follow–up email or perhaps several to clear things up. This is a common tale, owing to the imprecise nature of text communication. We try and use what seem to be appropriate mechanisms for lending clarity and fullness to our message (italics, caps, bold, etc…), but we may yet fail in that endeavor. Why?

Well, mistakes happen. Take this example email message for instance:

Hi Doris,


So, what was communicated there? Is Jill mad at Doris? Is Jill having a bad day? Did Jill hit the caps lock and not notice? Is it that Jill makes no distinction between all–caps text and regular text, so any difference in tone is lost on her? Maybe Doris knows Jill well enough to know which is most likely, but maybe she doesn’t.

In other words, because context is not a constant and we all know that mistakes happen, our attempts at using embellishment to communicate tone of voice or humor or irony may not be successful. Some may assume we made a mistake (caps lock), while others may assume we’re angry or that we’re shouting. But mostly, the recipient of such a message will be somewhat unsure what to think.

Here’s another embellished message excerpt:

…I heard that you almost tied the score near the end, but your shot went wide of the goal. Nice going, idiot. Maybe next time you’ll do some of that athlete stuff and not lose…

First of all, the whole thing could be read either angrily/sarcastically or humorously/ironically. Which is it? Generally, the message will have established some context initially. Then there’s the matter of the italicized quip. Why did the writer use italics there? Was it to lend a humorous “wink” to the phrase or to emphasize the severity of the criticism? Or was it for some other reason that made sense to the writer, but might be lost on the reader? This sort of subtext to the communication has to be made accessible by way of a clearly defined context, which may or may not have been sufficiently defined in the examples used here.

Even unembellished words might not be easily interpreted. Take these actual newspaper headlines (1) for instance:

In a strict sense, the above newspaper headlines could be comical or libelous. A clearly defined or properly assumed or communicated context is required for these headlines to make sense to us.


So it seems to me that perhaps the primary job a designer has is supporting or crafting and communicating the appropriate context so that the words and any embellishments they feature will be understood correctly. A terrific concept will fail in execution if the context has not been appropriately designed.

Design is communication. Therefore, design is beholden to the tenets of communication in its many forms — especially its most fundamental forms. Design execution implies communication, but truly it is only communication when it is understood by the relevant audience(s) (as in “co”–mmunication).

Now, think about how visual communication metaphors are context–dependent.

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(1) Steven Pinker, 2002 (from The Blank Slate)