An Easy Powerful Design Trick

Man looking at augmented reality screen with border

This tip is probably has many surprising qualities and benefits. Our design tip here is arguably one of the most under utilized, unrealized, quickest, simplest, least expensive, yet most effective ways to reduce errors in understanding that I've yet come across.

Most of us would probably agree that learning a new and complex topic takes time, energy and much focused concentration, in order to master the subject adequately.

If you're charged with creating a document — whether paper-based or for use in a web page or e-book — as a member of this group, you'll naturally want to seek out ways to make your publication simple to use and easy to understand. For example, here are two of the most important ingredients for any publication "recipe":

  • Using a simple, clear, easy writing style.
  • Exercising brevity in your word choices and document length whenever possible and appropriate (especially for use online). However, the key here is judgment: as concise as required, but no shorter. If your information or message is too brief, where is the value?

However, never forget, voracious readers and search engines often prefer depth of coverage. Topics that are covered with thoughtful, balanced depth, that add useful nuances to the overall discussion, can gain additional benefits for the authors.

When you better determine for whom you're writing, you can decide the best approach. 

A variety of techniques are available to help create an "easy" document — we share many such skills in other articles elsewhere throughout

Moreover, for documents or materials that seek to teach quickly the intricacies of a complex topic:

  • Design and layout play an important role when your goal is to help ensure readers can more easily absorb and understand what you're striving to put over.

How a Development During World War II is Helping Publication Designers Today

This design tip is rumored to have resulted from research originally carried out during World War II. Aircraft designers noted that new pilots often made basic errors while reading labels and legends on cockpit control panels.

To improve "hit" rates and boost accuracy levels, cockpit designers experimented and tested a variety of approaches. After creating a series of tests using different fonts, text sizes and layout arrangements, the researchers and designers made an important discovery. They found that:

  • Installing a simple box border around text dramatically improved the pilots' ability to find and read the labels correctly first time. Whether the text was a single word, a phrase or a sentence, better results were achieved.

So the "Johnson Box" soon became an enduring standard design technique available to aircraft cockpit designers the world over. Who would have thought that such a simple remedy could have such a dramatic effect? In hindsight, we can now understand the genius logic.

Yet today, we can make use aircraft cockpit design to enhance our own publications including documents destined for:

  • Commercial printing.
  • Desktop publishing projects.
  • e-books and PDFs.
  • Websites and web page designs.

Key tip: even using a thin box border around a text block seems to instantly help focus the eye accurately to the information within the box. Today, we see this simple yet effective box border technique used in a wide range of publications and information presentations, especially to highlight important text messages, headings or labels.

Though not quite the same, color contrast too, also creates a boxed effect. In addition, publications both on the web and offline, can also make use of color and shading to suggest a box shape without actually drawing a box outline, with the similar benefits. We've done that in the paragraphs above and throughout this website.

So what more can we learn here? Consider:

  • Effective and powerful solutions don't necessarily need large, big or complex components.
  • Never underestimate the power of simple, quick, easy.
  • Complex problems don't necessarily require equally complicated solutions.

Key tip: use the power of the box border to highlight your message whenever appropriate.

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