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Dynamics in Document Design. Karen A. Schriver. New York, NY: John Wiley, 1997.

(Draft review  for Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Vol. 11 No. 4, October 1997. 511-513.)

Reviewed by Jonathan Price

This major work defines the field of document design, establishes its history in broad-strokes, synthesizes a vast amount of academic research, and presents Schriver’s own interpretations and recommendations in terms a practicing writer can follow. A tour de force, the book shows that Schriver is that rare bird, a writer who conscientiously follows her own advice about writing and design. As a result, this book will serve teachers and students, researchers and practitioners for many years, as a fundamental text in our emerging discipline.

Schriver tackles the question of definition right away. She admits, "There is no perfect name for the field." (4) And she acknowledges that many readers begin with a prejudice against any document because of the hard-to-use, boring, and ugly brochures, books, and manuals they have experienced in the past; having figured out how to use some of these horrors, few readers look forward to exploring some new, unfamiliar document. Also, the idea of a discrete document tends to dissolve when presented within a hypertext info-landscape. But, perhaps optimistically, Schriver takes that very transformation as an opportunity for professionals to redefine what a document might be: "a text-like artifact composed in print or in mixed media, the combination of which could only be imagined just a few years ago." (5) She hopes some readers can be drawn back to these new documents, if they are well designed.

Professional graphic design comes with a history of its own, stressing the aesthetic pleasures of mood, structure, and elegance at the same time as " ‘Ready-to-wear’ features: practicality, ease-of-use, and affordability."(5) But, unlike architects and product designers, the designers of documents have often been relegated to a support role, "dressing up and graphically packaging messages already structured, content already meaningful." (5) As a consequence, many documents emerge without "taking advantage of the powerful ways in which visual and verbal language can give meaning to one another." (6)

Schriver summarizes a long-standing debate about nature of the field she calls document design, stressing the fact that the terms used are important, because they influence teachers, shaping curriculum and approach, and shaping the expectations of students going into the profession. The name of the field, she urges, provides "a common language and a set of metaphors for talking about what we do." (10) Her own definition of the field is generously inclusive:

Document design is the act of bringing together prose, graphics (including illustration and photography), and typography for purposes of instruction, information, or persuasion. Good document design enables people to use the text in ways that serve their interests and needs. While documents must also meet the requirements of their clients, the reader's needs should drive design. 10-11

You can see Schriver’s deep commitment to serving the reader here, a theme she carries well beyond the conventional nod to audience analysis. In fact, she stresses, "Document design … is not characterized by genres or subject matters, but by the ways its practitioners envision the reader as an active participant and major stakeholder in the design and evaluation of documents.""(11)

Having defined a field, Schriver offers its history, drawing together the contributions from many disciplines and countries. She points out the common forces driving the development of document design in five major areas that don’t normally talk to each other much (consumerism, environmentalism, composition and rhetoric, graphic design and typography, and professional development in writing, graphic design, and typography), and although the majority of her narrative focuses on American experience, she sketches the growth of similar movements in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, and Japan. She discerns three traditions influencing our thinking about writing and design: a craft tradition (how to), a romantic tradition (genius knows no rules), and a rhetorical tradition, which she prefers, because of its explicit attention to the needs of the audience. What’s striking about her coverage is her sympathetic and even gracious treatment of views she finds retrograde or misguided; the result is a panorama, in which one may quibble with details, but enjoy the breadth of the view. And she has added a fascinating timeline setting out significant developments in each of the 5 contextual areas, decade by decade, through the 20th century.

The rest of the book reports research on the way real readers react to documents. Schriver begins with a revealing case study in which she and her team studied teenagers reacting to antidrug brochures, showing how, as sophisticated consumers, they may reject the very idea of a document in the context, before they even open it; refuse the implied or suggested social and rhetorical contract offered by the creators of the booklets; resent the speaker, and the view they imagine the speaker has of them—all while "comprehending" the content without any problem. Chief among Schriver’s recommendations for avoiding these catastrophes: begin by watching and talking with "real readers engaged in the process of interpreting texts." What an original idea! Very few practitioners are allowed to meet with their readers before preparing a table of contents, or writing a manual; right there, we have the recipe for a failure in design.

Having told several exquisitely detailed horror stories, Schriver offers professionals some real help, showing how to consider reader’s purposes when deciding questions of typography and layout, and exploring how words and pictures can best work together, especially on the World Wide Web. These two subjects, clearly, exist at the heart of a discipline that attempts to yoke the visual and the verbal to serve the reader. So Schriver dedicates her last chapter to what document designers can learn from readers, and how. She advocates protocol-aided audience modeling, taking comments from the audience to help designers build a better model of the reader. Going beyond simple usability testing, such efforts allow professionals to take readers’ emotions, thought processes, motivations, and reactions into account, as the design grows.

Schriver’s pictures and prose, throughout, show her sensitivity to the needs, concerns, and contexts of professional writers and graphic designers, her main audience: we get real people talking, heavy-duty research, provocative examples, helpful prescriptions. At the same time, without overqualifying or burdening us with too much argument or statistical proof, Schriver acknowledges the many researchers and teachers who have helped develop the field as an articulate discipline. In carrying on this high-wire conversation with at least half a dozen very tough audiences, she emerges as a sympathetic and brilliant guide. Her book offers convincing proof that she has listened to thousands of voices, without losing her own.


Copyright 1998-2001 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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