This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

To find out more about Write, go to or join us on Facebook at

23 July 2014

'Our Futures' in text, image, and video

This tweet made me think about my recent blog post on infographics. It's from the Royal Society of NZ, and it shows a highlight from their report 'Our Futures'.
I'm going to take a look at the image, and then talk about the way the Royal Society presents the Our Futures project.

How well does the image work?

The ‘age pyramid’ style of diagram might be unfamiliar, but works well once you understand it. In this image, the key at the right helps a bit — showing the age range 0 years through to 85+ years and how gender is shown.

Showing both the 2013 and 2001 data is confusing if we want to focus on one main story. There are two stories here:
  • the difference between ethnic groups, indicated by the shape of each diagram — how wide it is, and how the width changes with age 
  • the changes between 2001 and 2013, indicated by the difference between the shaded areas and the lines. 
Focusing on one story at a time would make the diagram clearer — using two diagrams if both stories were important enough to keep. Focusing on only the 2013 data would also remove the need for the line/shading ‘year’ key.

Labelling the ethnicities directly means the reader doesn’t need a key for those — very clear.

Here’s a link to the whole infographic:

How does the Royal Society let us learn about the project? 

The ‘Our Futures’ project presents its findings in a carefully considered set of ways.
  • You can read the key findings on the main project page.
  • You can watch videos describing the project and discussing the findings.
  • You can read the detailed report.
  • You can read the infographic containing the diagram above.
The Royal Society also recorded a set of videos at the launch event, and held a photo competition.
This variety suits people with different objectives and different learning styles. I like it — a great way to get a wide range of people engaged in the project.

21 July 2014

Designing information that people can use

‘Information’ is such a loaded word, isn’t it. Giving out information or writing it doesn’t mean that listeners and readers can use it.

Listeners and readers have to understand it, take it in and organise it so they can use it for their own benefit or for their family’s or client’s benefit. Some brain gym is involved in using information. It’s called ‘functional literacy’ — the ability to manage the information demands of daily life.

Many organisations work on information design. And some organisations work on measuring how effective public information is. They test information against criteria for effectiveness. Sometimes they ask users of information to test information and say how easy it is to read, understand, and use.

If your information is effective, it’s a good return on your investment (ROI). If it’s not effective, you’ve wasted your money, and readers have missed your message.

For more about testing information for effectiveness, look at this blog post by David Sless that caught our eye:

He has excellent ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples on his website too.

And for more about what makes information easy to use, check out our newsletters and tips at:

14 July 2014

Spies may need codes, but they need plain English too

I learnt pretty much everything I know about how to be a spy shortly after I turned 7. That was the year I got The KnowHow Book of Spycraft for my birthday.

The KnowHow Book of Spycraft — cover
I had hours of serious fun with this book. It taught me how to make invisible ink and how to write messages in code. It taught me how to carry my messages safely ­­— inside pens or secret pockets — and how to plant them discreetly for my 'contacts' to find. Most importantly, it taught me that to avoid suspicion I should always wear a large trench coat with many pockets, and a fedora in a complementary colour.

What I didn't realise at the time was just how much this book wasn't teaching me. It made no mention of how to write up my spy reports in clear, concise language. It did not teach me that the 'intelligence' I gathered about my family and friends meant little if I could not convey it effectively.

Over 30 years later, I’m finally able to close this gap in my knowledge. The Guardian reports that America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a style guide for spies. It's available online.

At long last, I’ll be able to write convincingly and correctly about who really did steal that last cookie from the cookie jar. It wasn’t me. Honest.

11 July 2014

How to pick a really, really good designer

Lynda in front of the wall that Alexander Rose designed for Write.

In our 23+ years of business we've worked with more than a few designers. And it's fair to say we've infuriated some and fallen in love with others! Lately it's the latter.

We found Alexander Rose and love them because they 'get' what we do. More importantly, they 'get' good design. We already knew Philippa Dawe, creator of the popular seminar 'Who Shot the Serif'. But once we saw Alexander Rose's sponsored design work for the Plain English Awards, we wanted some too.

We couldn't agree more with Philippa's brilliant take on good design. She says,
Good design has the power to differentiate, innovate, simplify and resonate.
Good design strips away unnecessary noise, getting quickly to the heart of what should be said or experienced. People — even smart people — don’t have the capacity or time to take in more than a couple of messages. This means that the messages we give them, must really matter. They must matter to the organisation they’re coming from, and they must matter to the person it’s going to. This means really caring about your audience.
Achieving simplicity in design is deceptive, because making a work of design appear effortless, means a great deal of work behind the scenes. We spend a great deal of time understanding what drives audiences and how they feel. We always explore as many creative options as possible and continually iterate ideas and visual solutions. The end result should answer both the business goals of our client and the needs of their customers.
I love Phillipa's comment about stripping away 'unnecessary noise' and 'quickly getting to the heart of what should be said or experienced'. So often we find ourselves gently pointing out to a client's designer that their creative work is obscuring, rather than supporting or conveying the all-important messages. I must confess we get upset when 'design' seems to be poured over the text with scant regard for the message or even for legibility. Nine point white text on a red background doesn't work. Really! Nor do very fancy fonts, low contrast colours, loads of block capitals, and most watermarks under text.

So how do you pick a really, really good designer? Put them to the test. Listen to what they say. Look at their work and ask yourself 'what's the key message in this piece? Does the design help or hinder that message? Look out for the big hints in Philippa's words. She talks about the importance of messages, audience, simplicity, caring, and your business goal. A really, really good designer will naturally and animatedly talk about those things — and they'll get excited when they hear those words from you too.

Thanks Philippa and Darren. We love your work! And that includes our beautiful new reception wall pictured above.

By Lynda Harris

01 July 2014

Do you battle chaos? Do you go far enough?

This swirl is a 'Mandelbrot set' -
order generated from chaos

Do you spend your life battling the forces of chaos? Probably. But can you do it faster? Better?

Senior executives unravel chaos. They keep the huge machine of their organisation running in synch at high speed.

Team leaders unravel chaos. They turn complex plans and demanding targets into results, while managing the personalities, strengths, and challenges of their teams.

Advisors unravel chaos. They take a bristling to-do list with competing priorities and turn it into services, reports, and outcomes.

Designers unravel chaos. They lower our blood pressure and frustration. Applying the discipline of user testing, they hone everyday products and services which don't make us go ‘wha…?

But underlying the order, chaos may still be lurking. Snarled sentences and impressive but incomprehensible jargon slow the work for all of us.

Cut the chaos in what you write and say. You'll cut through the rest of the chaos much sooner.