Nobody Reads: How Good Design Can Help

December 7, 2010 | Design Basics

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One thing I find myself telling clients repeatedly is: “No one reads.”

That doesn’t mean that people are not publishing, buying and reading books. It has nothing to do with the idea of “content is king” on the web.

It refers to the fact that people are bombarded with messages, information, data and content and they learn to automatically filter out what’s not important. Therefore we need to streamline our messages to be as succinct as possible and also use design to catch someone’s attention and guide them through the key points.

This is especially critical in situations where you are trying to get someone’s attention.

Captive audience or casual surfer?

There are times when a reader is very focused, like when someone buys a book and then settles into their comfy chair committed to reading it, start to finish. But viewers surfing the web, prospects reading your sales materials, or magazine readers just glancing at your print advertising are not likely to read your content top to bottom.

It’s a bit depressing to think, after spending so much time word-smithing your text, that people are not reading word for word. But that is the truth.

And it’s best to write and design knowing most people skim. For example:

  • In web copy, keep the sentence structures simple.
  • On web sites and in advertising, keep paragraph lengths short.
  • Use bullets to highlight lists with key information.
  • Use headlines and subheads so that readers can skim to the parts they care about.

A personal story

Yesterday, I got burned by not reading something, and I want to turn it into an opportunity to demonstrate how design can help with conveying a message.

Our building manager announced a couple of weeks ago that Central Maine Power would be replacing the meters in our building and there would be “short interruptions in power” as they did their work. A sign was posted on the elevator bulletin board announcing the December 6th work. Because nearly all of our work is done on computers; and computers do not function well with “interruptions” in power, we pretty much had to close shop during the electrical work.

When I arrived at work yesterday at noon, I checked in with the management office to ensure that the work was completed and it was safe to turn on the computers. The manager’s face got that “oh no” look on it, as she explained that the date had changed and that she had definitely changed the date on the posters in the elevators.

Sign on Bulletin Board

Sure enough, she had changed the date on the posters on the elevator. But everything else about the poster looked exactly the same. This is a case where the design of the poster should have changed to reflect a new message.

While the original message had explained the planned power outages and the timing of the event, the new message should be: NEW DATE!!! Because this poster looked exactly like the one hanging there for the previous two weeks that had listed December 6th. I had just learned to tune it out, as there was no reason for me to actively read it again.

Lessons learned

Yes, I know. I should read and pay attention more.

But I think this clearly demonstrates the fight we are all in to get and keep someone’s attention. Use design to highlight the message.

  • Headlines should reflect what’s really of benefit to your reader
  • The extraneous details should be minimized
  • The design should pull the reader through the key information


Our office will be closed on the morning of December 13th because of short interruptions in power.

PPS. As I left the building after taking the photo of our bulletin board. I saw this as I walked out my door. This is the outside of the Portland Museum of Art which is across the street from my office.

Jenny Holzer Projection, Portland Museum of Art

I definitely read it!

This is part of a special presentation by artist Jenny Holzer. Learn more here.

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