Information design and information hierarchy. What’s it all about?

written by Matt Brady
Information design and information hierarchy. What’s it all about?

Information design. Information hierarchy. They sound like intimidating things, right?

But in actual fact, used wisely, they’re the foundation for clear communications which saves businesses millions. Attention piqued yet?

A dictionary definition

If you Googled its benefits, you’d find that ‘…good information design results in the clear and effective presentation of information. It combines skills in graphic design, writing, and human factors to make complex information easier to understand.’

The Information Design Association puts it another way: ‘For information to have impact, it must be easy to find, simple to use, and instantly understandable.’

So far, so straightforward, right? So why aren’t more brands making the most of it?

Why do you need information design or an information hierarchy?

These days, we’re faced with a veritable barrage of information. It invades our every moment through the letterbox, on our televisions, on our laptops, on our smartphones, in every single form of media, even grocery or clothes shopping. It’s endless.

When you’re drowning in a sea of information, the normal reaction is to switch off and block out the noise – exactly the last thing you want as a brand.

But here’s where mapping out a good information hierarchy becomes important. It helps us cope with information overload by presenting important details in a way that can be absorbed quickly and with as little effort as possible.

Think about your tax returns, they can be so absurdly impenetrable it feels like they really want you to run away to the Cayman Islands. And how about trying to wade through ever-updating Terms & Conditions? It’s not surprising that most of us simple click ‘accept’ without even reading them.

These less-than-exciting documents are the most important customer communications, but too often they’re the parts that suffer the most. They usually get left in the shadows as companies aren’t quite sure how to tackle them to get them right.

Not quite convinced yet? With poor communications costing businesses up to 40% of their annual budget, it’s not something to be ignored. We worked with HMRC on their tax reminders and by using best practice design principles such as clear navigation, typographic hierarchy and effective language, we brought in an extra £600 million in six weeks. And saw 150,000 fewer cases passed to a third party debt collection agency. Not bad for a single document.

So how does it work?

It’s all about collaboration between clear, plain language and best-practice design.

It starts with a real interrogation of the brief. It’s important to nail some key objectives with assigned and measurable targets as these help position the project.

Understanding the proposition comes next and this has to be done with the end user in mind (not just the client). Consider the customer’s needs, priorities, experiences and expectations and use this as a way of teasing out new insights that can be used as part of the creative solution.

Then challenge everything.

Challenge the usual conventions of procedures – one of the things we hear a lot is ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ and while processes can seem like an unmovable element, often they’re not.

Challenge the guidelines – most brand books are built with above the line advertising in mind so if you’re working on a below the line campaign, you may need to use your imagination.

What makes a good information hierarchy?

A good information hierarchy makes life easier for the customer and if there’s a simpler (and often more cost effective) way of doing this, why not?

And this is where the creatives come in. The writers make your message easy to understand by breaking it down and eliminating unnecessary and repetitive information. They look at making features become benefits and calls to action clearer, and a good writer gets to grips with complex regulatory content, with the confidence to put it in plainer terms.

A case in point? We worked with Clydesdale Bank on the terms and conditions of their new banking app, B – a fresh approach to finance needed a fresh approach to the fine print.

Meanwhile, the designers use all the tricks in their toolkit to make the complex simple – things like routing, readability, structure, hierarchy and use of colour, graphics and fonts. Think of this as creating the invisible thread that creates a logical flow through the communication, directing the reader where you want them to go and how you want them to behave.

Most people are time poor and rarely have more than a couple of minutes to review your communications – if you can do the hard work for them, you’re already a step ahead.

Making your design stand up

As part-art, part-science and linked to measurable KPIs, information design has a consistent habit of delivering great returns on investments meaning there’s a direct and positive impact on your bottom line and your brand experience.

Design is a very subjective field. But this type of design, coupled with a clear information hierarchy, gives you an objective output that makes real business sense. By creating communications that have a clear purpose, a clear logic and a clear call to action, you’re delivering on your brand promise and eliminating those ‘pain points’ that can cost businesses – big time.

See how information design combines creativity and compliance and get inspired for your next project.

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