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Design Better with CRAP

Design Better with CRAP
Basic Design Principles

    The power and ease-of-use of today’s computer applications has raised the bar drastically on the quality of design expected in the documents we produce. As recently as ten years ago, it was typical to produce business letters, memos, and other documents using a courier-like, monospaced typeface, often with only underlining available for emphasis of key passages or section headings. The only options for correcting typos and other mistakes were white-out, pencilled-in marks, or re-typing. Our documents looked boring, but they were expected to look boring.

    Today that’s all changed. Word processing and desktop publishing software are everywhere, and offer dozens (if not hundreds) of fonts ranging from the simple and elegant to the downright bizarre. Style sheets on the web and easily accessible styling options in our desktop software allow us to easily create section headings, pull-quotes, bulleted lists, and text columns — giving us the potential to greatly enhance the layout and delivery of information.

    The result, of course, is more likely to be a mish-mash of difficult-to-read fonts, seemingly random italics and boldfaced text, extraneous sidebars, and awkward layouts. In unskilled hands, the tools available to us can very quickly produce messy, over-designed documents that are far less readable than the plain typewritten documents of old.

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    Applying a few basic design skills can help avoid those mistakes, instead allowing the features we often regard as “extras” to take their rightful places as means of enhancing the readability and impact of our work. While design is a skill — equal parts art and science — that can take years to develop to a professional level, the core ideas are quite simple, and applying them can produce a marked improvement on your day-to-day work.

    All design starts from four basic principles, abbreviated as CRAP (they come in no particular order, so the more squeamish can rearrange them to form “CARP”, if you like. I’d advise against “PCRA”, though…). These are Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.

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    • Contrast: Contrast refers to any difference of size, shape, or color used to distinguish text (or other elements, though here we’re focusing on text) from other pieces of text. The use of bold or italics is one common form of contrast — the difference in shape makes the bolded or italicized text stand out from the surrounding text. Increasing the size of headers and titles, or using ALL CAPS or smallcaps are other ways of distinguishing text. These techniques only work if used sparingly; a document typed in all capital letters has less contrast than one typed normally, so is harder, not easier, to read.
    • Repetition: Repetition in your text is bad; repetition of your design elements is not only good but necessary. Once you’ve decided on a size and typeface for second-level headers, for instance, all second-level headers should look the same. For most documents, two or maybe three fonts — leaning heavily on one for all the body text, with the other two for headers and maybe sidebars — are enough. The same bullets should be used on every bulleted list. Information that appears on every page should appear in the same place on every page. Design elements — like horizontal rules between sections or corporate logos — should appear the same whenever they are used throughout the document. Repetition of design elements pulls the document together into a cohesive whole, and also improves readability as the reader comes to expect text that looks a certain way to indicate certain qualities (e.g. the start of a new section, a major point, or a piece of code.
    • Alignment: Alignment is crucial not just to the cohesive appearance of your document but to the creation of contrast for elements like bulleted lists or double-indented long quotes. Your document should have a couple of vertical baselines and all text should be aligned to one of them. Unaligned text floats mysteriously, forcing the reader to figure out its relation to the rest of the document. Centered text is particularly bad (and is a novice’s favorite design trick). One immediate step you can take to vastly improve the appearance of your documents is to remove the “center” button from your software’s toolbar (or, less drastically, just ignore it). It is rarely self-evident what centering is meant to communicate, and too much centered text creates a sloppy, undisciplined look.
    • Proximity: Pieces of information that are meant to complement each other should be near each other. One great offender here is business cards and ads in local newspapers, where the name, address, and phone number are all scattered around the ad or card (for example, in the corners). Your reader shouldn’t have to seek out the next logical piece of information; rather, use proximity to make sure that the next piece of information a reader sees is the next piece of information they should see.

    None of these principles stands alone. Repetition and alignment together create the “normal” state that allows changing the shape or position of a piece of text to produce contrast; repetition and proximity go hand-in-hand to create useful formats like bulleted lists — the repetition of the bullet adds force to the proximity of the points. In fact, the bulleted list above uses all four of these principles to work: it contrasts with the body of this article by being aligned to a different baseline than the rest of the paragraphs; each principle is in boldface, providing contrast, and is also directly followed by its explanation, providing proximity; the bullets, the boldfaced text, and the alignment are repeated in each new point on the list.

    Almost all design builds on the foundation laid out above. Asking yourself how well each element of your layout satisfies these basic principles is a good way to make sure your work remains readable to your audience while also communicating a bit of your organization’s or business’ character. You may already unconsciously use these principles in your work, but knowing the principles and recognizing their use will help you make better, more conscious decisions in the future.

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    Ultimately, the goal is for the work you put in to designing a document to disappear, to become invisible, leaving your reader or viewer with unfettered access to the points you are trying to convey — both directly in your text and, ever-so-subtly, in your choice of design elements. In this respect, it’s a thankless job, because only rarely will anyone comment on (or even notice) the quality of design — but they will notice, and act on, the message. And that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

    NOTE: The principles outlined above are developed in full in Robin Williams’ excellent book The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which I recommend to anyone who wants to further develop a solid sense of design to improve their day-to-day written work. This post is intended as an introduction to Williams’ concepts and deeper explanation of their use.

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    Last Updated on April 11, 2019

    How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

    How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

    Possessing strong communication skills will help you in every phase of your life. This is especially true in the workplace.

    I have personally worked with several leaders who were masters of communication. A few were wonderful speakers who could tell a great story and get everyone in the room engaged. Those of us in attendance would walk away feeling inspired and eager to help with what came next. Others were very skilled at sharing a clear direction and job expectations.

    I knew exactly what was expected of me and how to achieve my goals. This was the foundation of an energized and vibrant role I was in. What I have found is strong communication skills are incredibly helpful and sometimes critical in how well we perform at work.

    Here we will take a look at how to improve communication skills for workplace success.

    How Communication Skills Help Your Success

    Strong communication skills pave the way for success in many ways. Let’s look at a few of the big ones.

    Create a Positive Experience

    Here are two examples of how well developed communication skills helps create a positive experience:

    When I first moved to the city I now live in, I began a job search. Prior to my first live interview, I was told an address to go to. Upon arriving at the address provided, I drove around and around attempting to find the location. After 15 minutes of circling and looking for the address, I finally grabbed a parking spot and set out on foot.

    What I discovered was the address was actually down an alley and only had the number over the door. No sign for the actual company. The person that gave me those very unclear directions provided a bad experience for me.

    Had they communicated the directions to get there in a clear manner, my experience would have been much better. Instead the entire experience started off poorly and colored the entire meeting.

    As a recruiter, I frequently provide potential candidates with information about a job I’m speaking to them about. In order to do this, I also provide a picture of the overall company, the group they might be joining, and how their role fits in and impacts the entire company.

    Time and time again I have been told by candidates that I have provided the clearest picture of a company and role they have ever heard. They have a positive experience when I clearly communicate to them. Even when the position does not work out for them, often times they will want to stay in touch with me due to the open communication and beneficial experience they had during the interviewing process.

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    Strong communication skills will provide a positive experience in virtually any interaction you have with someone.

    Help Leadership Skills

    It’s certainly a skill all its own to be able to lead others.

    Being a mentor and guiding others towards success is a major hallmark of great leaders. Another characteristic of effective leaders is the ability to communicate clearly.

    As I referenced above, having a leader who can plainly articulate the company’s mission and direction goes a really long way towards being the Captain of the boat that others want to follow. It’s like saying “here’s our destination and this is how we are going to get there” in a way that everyone can get on board with.

    Another critical component of everyone helping to sail the boat in the right direction is knowing what your portion is all about. How are you helping the boat move towards its destination in the manner than is consistent with the leaders’ vision?

    If you have a boss or a manager that can show you what it takes for not only you to be successful, but also how your performance helps the company’s success then you’ve got a winner. A boss with superior communication skills.

    Build Better Teams

    Most of us work in teams of some sort or another. During the course of my career, I have led teams up to 80 and also been an individual contributor.

    In my individual contributor roles, I have been part of a larger team. Even if you are in business for yourself, you have to interact with others in one manner or another.

    If you have strong communication skills, it helps to build better teams. This is true whether you are in an IT department with 100 other fellow programmers or if you own your own business and have customers or vendors you communicate with.

    When you showcase your robust ability to communicate well with others while interacting with them, you are building a better team.

    Now let’s jump in to how to improve communication skills to help you pave the way for your workplace success.

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    How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

    There are many tips, tricks, and techniques to improve communication skills. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information, so let’s focus on the things that will provide the biggest return on your time investment.

    Most of these tips will be fairly easy to become aware of but will take time and effort to implement. So let’s go!

    1. Listen

    Ever heard the saying you have two ears and one mouth for a reason? If you haven’t, then here’s the reason:

    Being a good listener is half the equation to being a good communicator.

    People who have the ability to really listen to someone can then actually answer questions in a meaningful way. If you don’t make the effort to actively listen, then you are really doing yourself and the other person a disservice in the communication department.

    Know that person who is chomping at the bit to open his or her mouth the second you stop talking? Don’t be that person. They haven’t listened to at least 1/2 of what you’ve said. Therefore the words that spill out of their mouth are going to be about 1/2 relevant to what you just said.

    Listen to someone completely and be comfortable with short periods of silence. Work on your listening skills first and foremost.

    2. Know Your Audience

    Knowing your audience is another critical component to having strong communication skills. The way you interact with your manager should be different than how you interact with your kids. This isn’t to say you need to be a different person with everyone you interact with. Far from it.

    Here is a good way to think about it:

    Imagine using your the same choice of words and body language you use with your spouse while interacting with your boss. That puts things in a graphic light!

    You want to ensure you are using the type of communication most relevant to your audience.

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    3. Minimize

    I have lunch with a business associate about 3 times a year. We’ve been talking for several years now about putting a business deal together.

    He is one of those people that simply overwhelms others with a lot of words. Sometimes when I ask him a question, I get buried beneath such an avalanche of words that I’m more confused than when I asked the question. Needless to say this is most likely a large portion of why we never put the deal together.

    Don’t be like my lunch business associate. The goal of talking to or communicating with someone is to share actual information. The goal is not to confuse someone, it’s to provide clarity in many cases.

    State what needs to be stated as succinctly as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some pleasant conversation about the weather too.

    The point is to not create such an onslaught of words and information that the other person walks away more confused than when they started.

    4. Over Communicate

    So this probably sounds completely counter intuitive to what I just wrote about minimizing your communication. It seems like it might be but it’s not.

    What I mean by over communicating is ensuring that the other person understands the important parts of what you are sharing with them. This can be done simply yet effectively. Here’s a good example:

    Most companies have open enrollment for benefits for the employees in the fall. The company I work for has open enrollment from November 1 to 15. The benefits department will send out a communication to all employees around October 1st, letting them know open enrollment is right around the corner and any major changes that year. There’s also a phone number and email for people to contact them with any questions.

    Two weeks later, we all get a follow up email with basically the same information. We get a 3rd communication the week before open enrollment and another one 1 day before it starts.

    Finally we get 2 emails during enrollment reminding us when open enrollment ends.

    There’s minimal information, it’s more of a reminder. This is effective over communication.

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    5. Body Language

    The final critical component to how to improve communication skills for workplace success is body language. This is something most of us have heard about before but, a reminder is probably a good idea.

    When I am in a meeting with someone I am comfortable with, I tend to kind of slouch down in my chair and cross my arms. When I catch myself doing this, I sit up straight and uncross my arms. I remember that crossing arms can many times be interpreted as a sign of disagreement or conflict.

    In general, the best rule of thumb is to work towards having open body language whenever possible at work. This means relaxing your posture, not crossing your arms, and looking people in the eye when speaking with them.

    When you are speaking in front of others, stand up straight and speak in a clear voice. This will convey confidence in your words.

    Conclusion

    Possessing strong communication skills will help you in many facets of your life and most certainly in the workplace.

    Good communication helps create better teams, positive experiences with those we interact with, and are critical for leadership.

    There are numerous tactics and techniques to be used to improve communication skills. Here we’ve reviewed how to improve communication skills for workplace success.

    Now go communicate your way to success.

    More Resources About Effective Communication

    Featured photo credit: HIVAN ARVIZU via unsplash.com

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