Monday, September 10, 2012

Article Design

Every now and then I get a great surge in traffic here at RSL. Lately, these surges have been owed to a kind tweet by Oliver Reichenstein, whose firm, Information Architects, has given us the iA Writer, which looks worth trying. When I get around to it, I'll write a post about it too. For now, however, in a pretty bald attempt to pander to the design community, I'm going to write a few posts this week about article writing as a "design" problem.

The Wikipedia article provides us with the following definition of design:

a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints. (Ralph and Wand 2009)

It suits me nicely because, on this definition, I've been talking about article "design" forever. I have long been encouraging writers to think of their problem as that of constructing an object with particular goals in view. Also, my focus on the paragraph is very much an attempt to identify "primitive components", while the "environment" of an article is, of course, the discourse or conversation that it is attempting to engage with. Finally, there is no question that publication in this environment is dependent on satisfying certain requirements and respecting particular constraints. In this sense, then, your problem as a writer of a journal article is a design problem.

Many years ago, as a kind of philosophical exercise, I tried to imagine the perfect object, the ideal thing. I quickly decided that it would be one that you'd immediately know what to do with when you see it. It would need no scientific investigation to understand. No owner's manual to operate. It would simply be obvious what it was for, and once you put it to that use you'd discover that it was perfectly suited to the task.

Clearly, we're striving for the same kind of perfection in our article writing. We want the reader to be able see at a glance what the article is for and, then, while reading it, to feel that the article is perfectly suited to accomplish that goal. Just as designers must constantly keep the user in mind, writers must be ever mindful of their readers. They must imagine what the reader will do with the object they're constructing.


Andrew Shields said...

iA Writer, which I've been using a lot lately, is an example of the kind of perfect object you describe. It is obvious what it is for, and it is perfectly suited to its task.

Oliver and I were both participants in seminars on German poetry in Basel back in the late 90s. He was a student; I was an interested auditor. And he beat me at chess a couple times ...

Thomas said...

Just got it today. It works really well.