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Art and text: Making the medium fit the message

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

Hiring a clown to deliver a news release may be alright - if you're publicizing a circus - but if it's to get the media to cover an IPO, you'll be sending the wrong message. It's the same with design: Flashiness might attract, but it could also distort the meaning of your printed or electronic communication.

It's the age-old struggle between substance and form, content and style - truth and fiction. Form and style are critical attributes of any publication - even a typeface carries a message. Difficulties arise, however, when the form and style assume a life of their own, either by conflicting with your desired message or by overwhelming it.

Form and style enhance content, just as attractive décor and efficient service enhance the enjoyment of a meal at a fine restaurant. Most successful eateries excel in all three - very few remain open for long, if either the food or the service is bad.

With so many formatting and design tools available on our desktops, it's easy to sacrifice substance on the altar of style when producing such written communications as news releases, product and service brochures, annual reports and, yes, even web sites. A picture is still worth a thousand words. But when they are used together, text and art must convey a consistent and complementary message.

The fundamental function of communications is persuasion. You want people to be stimulated by your news release, brochure or advertisement to take action (such as supporting your position on a public policy issue, hiring your firm or buying your product). The words, images and colours of your communication all work together to engender or reinforce impressions and attitudes that will lead to the desired action.

The key is "working together," and here are a few pointers that will help you achieve this desirable harmony:

Using visual gimmicks to catch attention will prove counterproductive, if the design makes it difficult for readers to orient themselves. Printed documents with unusual folds, flaps or shapes might appear clever - at least at first glance - but they carry high risk that the positive impression created by the initial impact will dissipate into confusion, frustration and annoyance.

Visuals that underlie text will have an equally negative outcome, if they compete with the type. This design technique will be effective, however, if it is subdued and reinforces the intended message; for example, by distinguishing one body of text from another.

Typography must be readable as well as attractive. Small type, soft colours or low contrast between printed word and background will obscure both the text and the messages that the text was intended to convey.

Good design is like good writing or a good waiter: They do their respective jobs best when they don't call undue attention to themselves.


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