Business documents: Why so bad?

pstanley's picture

I have a question for those involved in corporate design.

Is there a reason (better still, a good reason) why business documents are so badly prepared? I'm not talking about glossy annual reports, which get a real design treatment (though they're often awful too, but differently awful), but about ordinary reports, etc. These are in many businesses (such as mine: I'm a lawyer) the "product". This is the only tangible thing a client ever actually gets for the many thousands of pounds/dollars/euros they pay professionals like me. But they generally bear the brand of their origins, in the form of unadjusted Word setting. Often right down to the smallest gory details (huge bold italic arial headings, nasty little superscripts for dates etc).

Why should this be? I realise Word cannot produce typographical beauty, but it can be set up to produce something less horrid than it normally does. And there must surely be room for fonts other than Times and Arial, which between them account for 95% or more of such stuff.

Do businesses hire designers to advise them on how the software should be set up (margins, justification, font-size, leading, styles for headings etc) and what fonts would be appropriate? If not, should they? If they do, why is the result of this process a uniformity of dull nastiness even more grim than that which prevails in book design? Is it thought necessary to be "familiar"?

dan's picture

Paul, I can't talk about anywhere but here, Manhattan, USA and the Metro area, but law firms here look to hire kids fresh out of school with little or no experience. The only requirements are they know MS Word and Powerpoint. They are generally told to make the new document look like the old one. Why? They don't want to spend the money for a real seasoned designer.

pstanley's picture

I find it odd. These firms are not averse to spending large sums on public relations. I bet they spend a fortune on the design of brocures and letterheads. They just don't seem to be alive to the possible value of decent design in the very documents their clients actually read.

I was wondering if it was a conscious thing, a sort of "anti-design" statement: "This is serious stuff: look, it is untouched by a designer's hand." If so, it seems odd. Have you encountered any of that sort of reaction, Mark?

Chris Rugen's picture

I think the thought process is something like this:

If I pay for it, I want people to notice the design. But the business documents can't be 'design-y' or 'flashy' so why pay for them to be well designed?

Now, the choice of a good typeface, and the setting of a well-crafted template that copy could be poured into is, in my opinion, very well worth it, but to them it may not seem like it matters. Also, I've run into people siting an apocryphal study that shows Times New Roman to be the 'most legible' typeface. Who knows where that came from...

Thomas Phinney's picture

That one I recall vaguely. There was a readability study decades ago that compared several typefaces, and of those compared, Times was the most readable. However, IIRC, it was also the only general-purpose text face in the lot.


pstanley's picture

Yeees ... Now no doubt there are studies that say serif typefaces are more readable (and, of course, ones that say they're not ... and so on). But I don't believe that anyone's been reading those, because they also say that setting type at 80 characters per line with 1 point leading is pretty hard to read and that doesn't stop anyone.

I suspect it's rather the reverse. Professionals will think about Capital-D-Design when it comes to something like a logo or a brochure or a web-site; but they see it as essentially a form of decoration. The idea that typographical design might actually have something to contribute to communication doesn't cross anyone's mind. So many of the subtler possibilities (since good design in that sense would not be incompatible with "branding", though it would/should not be branding that came first) are simply ignored, because no-one realises they were there. People just copy other people like sheep.

Or do people imagine that "experts" at MS have carefully set up Word so that it is typographically correct? It's not an unreasonable assumption. It just happens to be badly wrong. (Unless anyone cares to defend 16 point arial bold italic sub-headings for 12 single-spaced times text?) I have to read this stuff every day until my eyes bleed. We have ergonomic chairs and desks. Is it too much to ask for ergonomic documents?

aluminum's picture

The problem, at least in America, is that most of us lack any formal training in basic aesthetics. It's hard enough for us to get training in the arts in general, for that matter.

We'll spend years and years learning writing style and guidelines, but we won't ever have a class teaching basic layout skills. What a margin is. What a serif is. Etc.

This is something that should be especially taught in any business or business writing school.

The other problem is a lack of training in basic office tools. Few people actually know how to use word, PPT and the rest. They just hack away at it.

amanda_loos's picture

> All this talk is exactly why Style Guides and Manuals were created. > Designers then have a certain amount of control over what goes on when > they can't be there to oversee every detail.

aluminum's picture

"Teaching basic layout skills is dangerous; you'll have even more clients thinking they know what they're talking about. "

I disagree. It's a basic skill everyone can and should benefit from. Clients already think they know what they're talking about. I imagine a few basic skills will enable them to see value in graphic design.

Jon Whipple's picture

This thread interests me greatly as I work at the crossroads of professionalism (Library & Information Science), complex information domain (One Canada's major public libraries with 22 branches and provincial resources), distributed document authoring and publishing (public service units are charged largely with determining the items and the content), and little recognition of the value of design (whether it be for building the percieved value of library services, communicating services or programming or whether it be internal communication).

Factors that make printed business material less than stellar:

Constrained budgets
One person, many roles
Percieved value by the producer

All of these are inter-related. When confronted with producing a high volume of business documents one will rely on existing or proven practice. One will turn to tools to match the demands of speed and utility. All else will take a second place role to these considerations. The primary goal, even in white collar service products is faster, cheaper. Better rarely enters into it unless a strong business case can be made.

My head explodes with thinking on this stuff. I love the mundane realms of typography and design: business documents, forms and related material. The work a day stuff that slide under everybody's radar.

Thanks Paul for starting this discussion.

But I have to go write a paper for my Technical Communications Course now.


anonymous's picture

Hey Paul

Its a very interesting question. Im actually just finishing up on a corporate design for a international lawfirm. I'm just finishing all the elements and havent had anything to do with the design BUT the fonts used is exatly Arial and Times...

So I couldnt stop laughing when I read your question. The answer

anonymous's picture

Ah Daniel... I kinda liked the way you twisted that one around... maybe its the lawfirms, or other businesses like that, that dosn't wan't to pay for a real designer.
Even though everyone knows its all about first impressions and the way you look when your facing out...
If you wan't to be taking serious... look serious...

anonymous's picture

Hey Paul
It sure is odd

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