Six out of ten?

Full marks to Port Phillip Council for trying, and although the title of their recent report, 'Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan'is rather a mouthful, the subject deserves to be given serious review.

But having said that, it's hard not to be critical at a broad level.  Like so much in local government the strategies appear to be the end product rather than leading to real action. I counted over sixty different charters, plans and strategies referred to in the footnotes; there's no shortage of words about what's really needed. But what we expect of our councillors is to implement improving changes, not just oversee the production of yet more great strategies.  As this document is a work in progress we'll have to wait until the next stage to find out how effective it's been and to see if any real changes are proposed or whether it's just more words.

Instead I'd like to take umbrage at the poor graphic design of this fifty odd page report.  The aim for a report like this should be to make it so easy to read and understand that you wouldn't even notice the design.  Not much point having great ideas and innovative concepts if you can't read them easily, is there!

In this case the presentation overpowers the content. Reports certainly don't have to be boring and serious like the planning reports of my youth, and a few relevant pictures to liven up the serious stuff are desirable.  But I feel manipulated by whole page photographs like that on page 10 of a child hugging her friend or the cheery group of citizens on page 30.  Photographs like this are gratuitous padding, with the mistaken idea no doubt that if a report isn't full of heart tugging pictures no one will be induced to read it.  And there are too many irrelevant background photos; the tops of pages 23 and 25 are distracting examples.   My daughter who teaches graphic design gives it 6 out of 10.

Starting at the most basic level the report is simply too hard to read. 
There are three different type sizes, 10 point for the body type (with two weights, Regular and (mostly) Light), 8 point for the inset strategies and 5.5 point for the footnotes.  The typeface is Gill Sans one of the sans serif typefaces so beloved by architects and designers, and the size and weight of the type in this document are simply too small to read easily; I literally had to use a magnifying glass for the footnotes!  And some of the indented 'puff' quotes are in colour, which doesn't help.

The basic choice of a sans-serif type ignores all those scholarly studies that have shown that in a document like this, serif typefaces are easier to read and comprehend.  This is why they are always used in newspapers and books.  People reading a text with serif letters apparently retain more that they do with sans-serif type; it's something to do with the way the serifs aid the flow of the eye along the sentence joining the letters together to form words.  So why pick a sans-serif type for a serious words document like this?

Before computers there were practical restrictions on the sizes of movable lead type that would have prevented type as small as the footnotes ever being used.  I can imagine the designer saying to herself ; My sense of design is superior, don't the differently coloured pages look great with different sized type, no one is going to read the footnotes anyway! 

I'm eighty four and wear glasses for reading but I've tried this document on people of all ages and they all agree that it shouldn't be this difficult if you want readers of all ages to both understand and keep reading. It's not just the footnotes, even the size of the main text in 10 point light type is too small to read easily in my opinion.  If some of the pictorial and jazzy backgrounds were deleted and the size and weight of the letter size were increased to 12 point, the report would be no longer but much easier to understand, particularly if a good serif typeface like Times New Roman or Georgia were used.  No point in having inspiring words and ideas if the design makes them hard to comprehend.

The report is also too long.  The Mayor, bless her, can put her authority on the report without a whole page that most will skip. And likewise for Aunty Carolyn Briggs; I totally support reconciliation with our indigenous community and I'm sure there are a number of strategies to bring this about.  I'm sure it wasn't the Council's intention but the sort of feel-good harking back stuff on page 17, complete with a glossary of aboriginal words, sounds condescending to me and in my opinion actually diminishes their potential contemporary role. 

As a precursor to action on wellbeing a series of graphs have been used to explain the demography of Port Phillip.  Communicating complex facts through visual diagrams like graphs is a skilled business, but alas, many of the graphs in this report are not nearly as clear as they might be. 

An example is the graph on page 22 showing Forecast Age Structure doesn't indicate clearly enough what is being graphed.  The vertical axis shows Numbers of People, while the horizontal axis shows the numbers of people for 2006 plus the numbers of people estimated for the two projected dates of 2021 and 2031, for eighteen 5 year Age Cohorts.  Most people will probably figure it out eventually if they persevere, but there's a danger that graphs like this will be passed over because they aren't immediately clear.  The planners would have given these facts to the designer, but it's up to him to make graphs like this crystal clear pictorially.

And while some of the diagrams like those on page 19 are clear enough I wonder if a whole page is necessary to get across such simple and not so important facts.  Again there are too many colours and information like that on page 18, isolated in boxes against a photographic background confuses rather than aids clarity of thought.

Increasingly I find reports like this are designed as though they are artworks-documents in their own right rather than documents that have to communicate a message.   The things grappled with in this report are too important to go unread simply because the wrong typeface at the wrong size has been used.

Let's be quite clear, the graphic designer is employed to get the Council's message across and make it easy to understand. It's not the designer's role to design what he wants or she likes; the design has to serve the important purpose of communicating Council's intentions. 

No designer is credited and I don't suppose Council will ever deign to tell the ratepayers how much this over-designed and ineffective report actually cost; a total cost that includes all designer and staff time as well as production costs! 

The Council must find a new designer for their next report and take responsibility to ensue that the graphic design actually supports the aim of helping bring about desirable change, rather than hindering it as this report does.

Don Gazzard
June 2014