What do public relations, marketing and coffee makers all have in common?

Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Design  may be most closely associated with his functionalist designs for Braun (and influence on Apple’s Jonathan Ive).  However, while the list provides guidance for industrial designers, it struck me as being applicable to how we approach – or, design, if you will – a winning communications strategy.

I’ve taken the liberty of retooling Rams’ guidelines, and am happy to present 10 Principles for Good Communications Design: 

  • Is innovative – A good communications program reaches the right audience at the right time in the right context. Rams notes the importance of technological development as a creator of new opportunity, and this is certainly true for communications, as well. With the sheer quantity of messages confronting us each and every day, we must constantly seek new opportunities and channels through which to communicate. A good example is the success of early campaigns on Twitter, targeted to the early-adopter audience. Similar approaches today wouldn’t be nearly as successful, as there’s so much noise to cut through.  Find the innovative approach, and you won’t need to cut through the clutter because you won’t be confronted with any.
  • Is useful – This one should be simple. Rams’ definition of good design is that which emphasises the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that detracts from it. For the communications professional, the questions that should be asked are whether the message or information being conveyed is useful to the audience and whether it is presented concisely. Whether announcing a new exec, product, strategy or feature, take time to think about what exactly the audience would find valuable. That’s exactly the information that should lead, and that on which you should focus. Take care not to lose sight of it among superfluous details.
  • Is aesthetic – Rams places importance on the aesthetic quality of a product, as such products effect on people and their well-being. For the communications professional, this concept can be applied to our written product. Yes, there is such a thing as aesthetically pleasing writing. A well-written news release, blog post or other type of official content can be considered aesthetically pleasing to the right audience by being clear, concise and lively (or entertaining, if that’s the right audience).  Just look at how Despair, Inc., which thrives on humour, explains its customer service…or actually “Customer Disservice™.” It’s clever, it’s witty, it plays upon all of experiences as disgruntled consumers, and it is incredibly pleasing to read. That is perfect example of aesthetically pleasing communications.
  • Is understandable – In design, Rams equates a well-designed product to one that is easily understood from a functional standpoint. You should know what a product is or does with just a quick glance. For the communications professional, it is important to be similarly clear. A well-crafted message about a company or service should be conveyable in a meaningful way within a single, brief sentence.
  • Is unobtrusive – This is an important one. Rams’ points out that functional products are not art, they are tools, and therefore they should not distract. Information becomes an  annoyance when it’s not well organised, it’s unwanted, or it’s getting in the way of what we are looking for at that moment. With the sheer quantity of information confronting audiences every day, this has become an enormous issue and source of a negative reputation for communications professionals. We must take more care in the way we present and distribute information in order to be unobtrusive, presenting only well-targeted and relevant information – our goal is to reach the right person at the right time in the right context with the right, well-written, message.
  • Is honest – Rams says that a product should not manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept. Likewise, for the communications professional, to be honest is to communicate what you are, not what you aspire to be. For example, if a company can’t quantify the claim of being a leader, then they shouldn’t make that claim. A responsible communications professional will explain to clients that it is only wise to communicate what you can prove. It’s OK to internally aspire and aim higher, but don’t make claims that cannot be solidly, factually supported.
  • Is long-lasting – For design, Rams advises to avoid being too fashionable to prevent appearing antiquated later on. This is good advice for the communications professional, as well. When approaching communications, think about what will be relevant today, tomorrow, next month, and next year. Be aware of buzzwords and lingo.  Always remember that trendy today may look silly tomorrow.
  • Is thorough down to the last detail – Rams cautions that nothing should be arbitrary or left to chance. For communications, this equates to making sure that all messaging is thoroughly vetted. Think about its relevancy, clarity and mission focus. Be conscientious that the language used will appeal to the audience being targeted. And very importantly, make sure it can all be verified with facts and figures. As we saw with “honesty,” if you say you’re a leader, make sure you can clearly state a leader in what and by how much.
  • Is environmentally friendly – For Rams, environmentally friendly means a product minimizes physical and visual pollution. In the communications environment, this is equal to being clutter free.  A well-crafted communications approach should include the information necessary and convey it with language that appeals to the audience. All other superfluous material should be excluded (and yes, I know our track record as a profession isn’t great on this issue, but as an industry, we are working on it).
  • Is as little design as possible – This is a good follow up to the previous point, if not to the entire list. Rams advocates purity and simplicity. Here, we can use Twitter as a great guideline. With its 140 character limit, Twitter forces us to design our message as succinctly as possible. Think about your messages as if they were tweets, and design them with the goal of using the fewest words to achieve maximum effect.  The same rule applies to visual communications, such as video seen on short form sites. With our limited attention spans and the increasing mobile content consumption (viewed on small screens while in the midst of environmental distractions), make it short, but make it count.

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