Design the Conversation for Understanding

As the daughter of an English teacher, I grew up with a significant appreciation for the delivery of the English language. I understand cadence, inflection, narrative pace, voice and tone. I still struggle with punctuation (the em-dash and en-dash trip me up) but word context, grammar and meaning seem to come natural.

Fortunately, as part of my work at Capsule, I often attend conferences and speaker sessions. In doing so, I find myself studying rhetorical delivery even more than the content itself. Are speakers scripted, or conversational? Do they stand behind a podium or walk deliberately about the stage? While most are quite polished, accomplished and proficient in delivery, I often chuckle a bit when common words or phrases are used incorrectly. I laughed out loud when I saw this phrase come across on Pinterest:

Some of my favorite word or phrase gaffes?


“For all intensive purposes.”


Yikes, please don’t “aks” me.

Now, I don’t mean to be a word snob pointing these out, I just find them particularly enjoyable, and yes, I silently correct.

Well, delivery and grammar are important elements to get right, certainly, but what about understanding? Sydney J. Harris, an accomplished journalist said, “The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

If an intended message does not “get through” to the intended audiences, certain scenarios become sticky situations. It’s no longer just a funny little moment that prompts silent grammar correction. Real misunderstanding is about to take place.

Here’s a very good and simple example:

Each of the icons pictured here represent quick and easy bits of information. Icons are designed to be concise in order to communicate swiftly. However, thanks to poor execution of this information, the communication is garbled and there is misunderstanding. If you approached this juncture, what would you do?

Or, how about this one?

I have no idea what this bit of information is trying to tell me, but whatever it is, it’s not good. I don’t know if I should flee or drop and take cover.

These are extreme examples of poorly designed information resulting in lack of communication. Ultimately, these moments of garbled messages create incomplete conversations. The information doesn’t get through and the recipient is left wondering what’s next. Thud.

Rather, if information is received and understood, you’ve designed a conversation — even if it is with a static street sign. So I would further Harris’ statement by saying “Information is giving out; communication is getting through; conversation is thoughtful exchange.”

I’ll leave you with one last humorous attempt at communication. While on a recent trip to New York, I walked past this dentist office in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood:

In this context, next to the words Hell’s Kitchen, a very literal tooth pulling illustration communicates a less than welcoming message. Information and communication? Yes. Conversation? Not ideal. This icon has a negative contribution to the conversation.

We design conversations with every engagement whether verbal or visual. My advice is to make certain your conversations are thoughtfully designed by considering your audience and their desired outcome.

Just another way design contributes to daily life.

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