Clear views ahead

September 27, 2007

I’m a little behind on The Times (NY). I just got around to reading an interesting article from the Times Magazine about the new font, called Clearview, rolling out on highway signs nationwide. It was surprising to learn that this was:

“the first time in the nation’s history that anyone attempted to apply systematically the principles of graphic design to the American highway.”

With all the agencies and bureaucracies, you’d think that someone would have said, hey, lets make sure the signs people need to read while they are driving really fast are clear. You’d think.

But here’s something that got me thinking more:

“I’ve always thought that design can be a form of social activism.” – Don Meeker, environmental graphic designer behind the new font

This is not some flame-throwing radical. Not someone railing against injustice. Just someone who thinks that our country could use a little more clarity. And I couldn’t agree more.

Whether or not you call clarity-enhancing design social activism, it seems clear that clarity (usability & readability) is in short supply. With negative consequences large and small for our society.

Think back to the 2000 election and the infamous butterfly ballot usability problems in Florida. (A butterfly effect indeed.)

Think about Target’s award-winning prescription drug bottle designs (called ClearRX), which are meant to address, amongst other usability issues, the serious problem that about 60% of patients have taken the wrong medicine due to lack of labeling clarity.

Think about how much time you waste trying to figure out how to assemble toys for your kids because the instructions aren’t clear. Or program the VCR,DVR, cell phone, insert-your-pet-peeve-here. Companies that breakthrough usability/clarity issues with great design often win fanatical followers (iPod, Tivo).

Sometimes clarity and usability suffers simply because of inattention, as was the case for the highway system. Sometimes there are economic issues (outsourced product manufacturers outsource their instruction manuals as well, or choose to skimp on paper quantity or print quality).

And sometimes unclear design is a conscious choice: creative directors who think first about their design (and their own portfolios) and second or third about the customer or potential customer who must interact with their design. So font colors are changed from black to gray. Font sizes go down a point or two. Web site conventions are ignored.

But I do think the tide is turning. There’s much more focus on usability and consumer-centric design and marketing. And Apple’s success illustrates the profitable sweet spot where cutting-edge design and clear usability intersect.

Upfront in the short run, that may be a more costly path (you do pay a premium for Apple product), but I think it’s the smarter path from a long-term economic standpoint (product differentiation, user loyalty, product premiums). And better for society.

On a personal note, since my daughter is just starting kindergarten, I’m hoping that homework assignment usability has improved since I was little. It sometimes use to drive me crazy reading the instructions over and over trying to figure out if they meant I should do X or Y. Stay tuned.