Summarizing the results of a few design-related research papers. (Not an oxymoron; graphic design is not just about making things pretty.)

  • A zero in a screenfont has to look like a zero, not an o. Microsoft-funded research came to the conclusion, embarrassing to Microsoft, that zeroes that look like lower-case os are harder to recognize than tall zeroes. In other words, if the task is distinguishing individual numbers, ranging or oldstyle figures just do not cut it onscreen.

    Three of the Microsoft Vista screenfonts (nobody can ever keep their names straight, so let’s not bother) scored between 6% and 16% recognition; other fonts with real zeroes, including three other Vista fonts and Verdana, never scored less than 60%. Centaur’s full-height zero scored 100%, but I wager its I-like 1 would flunk miserably.

    If you think oldstyle figures would be just dandy in printouts of Web sites, well, this seems rather like tits on a bull, but if you insisted, we could handle this in CSS by specifying a screen font and a print font, as God intended.

  • Drawing on paper is indeed going out of style. Research (PDF) carried out over 20 years – before and after the arrival of desktop publishing – shows that fewer and fewer designers hand-draw many interations of a design or keep sketchbooks (20% fewer in the latter case). The history of a specific design job now tends not to exist, because we simply alter and re-save a computer file rather than erasing or writing over an existing drawing or making a new one.

    Almost nobody draws in front of a client, because they might be put off by the poor quality of the drawing, or think it looks too easy (“My eight-year-old could do that!”), or, paradoxically, might insist that the end product look exactly like that first little sketch. Still, in the post-DTP subjects studied, everyone insisted they started a project with hand-drawn sketches.

    There is no discussion of the fact that drawing on computer is overprecise. It isn’t really drawing; it’s drafting. But you had to be careful even with printed drawings: “If senior designers… produced overprescriptive drawings… they could limit the creative input [that] more junior team members felt able to make.” And, back dans la journée, everyone felt thay had to be able to sketch in different visual styles from memory. (Could you do that? I couldn’t.)

    To replace sketchbooks, now used one-fifth less often, I guess now we just bookmark (“favourite,” v.) the digital images we like. But I don’t see how people can keep those straight. I retain printouts of all important research papers (conservatively 12 linear feet of them) and still cannot find things. I lose pictures in my Flickr favourites. Other people’s Web pages can simply up and die (mine don’t). It’s unreliable.

    For the visual designer, I think you’d have to print things out and keep the sheets in the same place, a de facto scrapbook. Flickr tags are not going to work here, I don’t think. And to do this properly, as often as is genuinely needed, would require the use of colour laser printing.

  • Planning is almost equivalent to research in a large design project. A somewhat vague paper (PDF) found that various steps of the design process are and can be used as “a planning tool.” You can turn this around and observe that activities like behavioural research (e.g., user testing), measurement and recording (like eyetracking), and, I’ll add, beta-testing are all the sorts of steps you carry out if you’re in a big company or you are just organized. But they’re also stages in the design process. It’s a two-for-one offer.

    Pretty much everything I’ve read on graphic-design research (including A Designer’s Research Manual by Jennifer Visocky) is liberal to the point of straining credulity in what it defines as “research.” Really, collecting a scrapbook about, say, contemporary images of African-Americans would constitute research in this context. I used to think this was somewhat dishonest, or was at least an attempt to gussy up graphic design in clothing that was a bit too small for comfort, but now I think that this degree of rigour is all that graphic design, as opposed to typography and science of reading, can realistically bear.

    Just as it is tedious and tendentious to read overblown criticism of a field that produces billboard and magazine layouts, it may be unrealistic to expect scientifically reproducible double-blind experiments backing up the efficacy of those layouts. The role of research papers like this one, and books like Visocky’s, is to tell graphic designers about themselves: If you’re halfway credible at what you do, then yes, a lot of your work really is research.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.08.27 17:06. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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