Information served with a smile


When it comes to consuming information we’ve never been so hungry, or so overfed. This voracity is matched only by the creativity of the packaging. For example what would you call what you’re reading now – a post, an article, a feature, a commentary, an essay or a story? What kind of mental container would you put it in?

What is it?

Packaging immediately affects how we begin to interpret information. Even before we start reading, presentation of information and titling prompt us with what to expect in terms of purpose, quantity and depth of information, and contributes to our assumptions about the value of a piece of communication.

Sheets, cards, lists and things

Good information-design can be defined as a balance between the quality of content and the effectiveness of the form chosen to convey its meaning. A peek inside the communicator’s toolbox reveals an array of timeworn devices (and a slew of collected bits and bobs that might come in handy someday) that help us wrangle our information into shape and to remember the important bits.

A plain page of written information might be crafted into any one of the following formats to proclaim its bold intent, its importance and what it might do for you if you choose to read it:

  • Masterplan – behold, the grand vision!
  • Backgrounder – let me set this up for you
  • Primer – here are some things you should know before you start
  • Blueprint – follow my lead and you’ll be right
  • Checklist – don’t forget anything
  • Forecaster – this is what’s coming
  • Explainer – let me explain that complicated thing
  • Synopsis – let me summarise this for you
  • Guide – let me help you with that
  • Update – here’s the latest
  • Report – here’s what happened in detail
  • Factsheet – these are the most important bits

And if our audience doesn’t have time or appetite for quite so many words, we can downsize to a more snackable set of no-nonsense options:

  • Frequently Asked Questions – what you and lots of others might be wondering
  • Ready reckoner – let me add this up for you
  • Quick reference card – your personal dictionary
  • Digest – the most relevant bits
  • Round-up – the most interesting bits
  • Breakdown – the most important bits
  • Summary – the gist of what happened
  • Bulletin – the bare bones
  • Snapshot – the essence
  • Facts at a glance – just the facts
  • Cheat sheet – essential reminders you’d write on your wrist before a test

Usually the trade-off for this convenience and brevity is depth of meaning. But the ability to slice and dice information for different purposes is invaluable for learning and making complex content more engaging. You can see more of these devices in action in our case studies.

Content-tapasization and changing tastes

Screen-based reading makes packaging – and information downsizing in particular – more important than ever. Denied the reassuring tactile cues of physical publications, the onscreen environment seems to constantly reference pre-digital formats and concepts: we flit between pages and windows, scanning text above and ‘below the fold’; we choose from tabs, menus and submenus; we fill in forms and comment on posts.

These staples of user interface design and information architecture attest to our love and the usefulness of good packaging. With less space, less time and more competition, online information is segmented (chunked) and the traditional writing structure where the conclusion is presented after the justification is often reversed (telescoped) so the reader can get to the core of the content first and decide whether to continue.

On or offline, it’s clear that our fascination with the forms we give to content will continue to help us discern, learn, remember and interact with increasing quantities of information.

By Alan Fitzpatrick