Knowledge Management and Beauty

Some design choices are a matter of opinion, but others are a matter of evolution. Human brains appreciate patterns found in nature—and this principle informs many basics of good design. Image credit: Dave Spindle via Flickr Creative Commons

People rarely associate beauty with databases, newsletters, and other knowledge management products—but if my newsletter makes your eyes hurt, you won’t read it. To me, there’s no purpose in managing knowledge unless people absorb, use, and share the knowledge I’m managing. “Look and feel” isn't about being pretty or cool; I see it as a genuine make-or-break issue for successful knowledge management. It gets the audience through the door.

A person visiting a website for the first time decides in 1/20th of one second whether it looks good. That instant carries over into judgments about quality, usefulness, and reputation of a site and its content. Unfortunately, I've found that most people who are vocal about the importance of look and feel are designers, and many non-designers take their opinion with a grain of salt. “Sure, Ms. Art School Designer, *you* think it’s good to avoid flashing-spinning-screaming things and Comic Sans, but I love my ideas, and I’m the client.”

Even people who accept that there is such a thing as “engaging web design” don’t necessarily apply that thinking to other products. “Attractive” is not usually high on the list of specifications for a report or a spreadsheet. I think that’s a mistake. Anything I produce has a look and feel. If a report has jarring or out-of-context art choices (for example, a combination of stock photography and stick-figure clip art), I probably won’t read it. If a presenter is reading words from her own slides, or describing a table that’s too small to see, she might lose my attention.

Good design takes extra work, and the up-front effort to learn some design basics. But if you want others to benefit from knowledge you share, it’s up to you to consider that first glance—that 1/20th of a second. Will it convince the viewer that your product is worth more of their time?

For Further Reading

Participants at “Knowledge Management Basics” presentations I have led often ask for a follow-up handout of design resources. Here are a few favorites.

Website: The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g): Jakob Nielsen is a web usability guru. Donald Norman wrote The Design of Everyday Things, below. The Articles section on NN/g’s website is a treasure trove of research on usability issues. I recommend starting with Website Reading and Participation Inequality.


  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. This book changed how I look at product design. It was published in 1988, so some examples are outdated, but it’s still my #1 choice on usable design.
  • Universal Principles of Design, by William Lidwell, et al. A beautiful look at design principles — well-known ones like Ockham’s Razor and the Golden Ratio, and more obscure ones like “Progressive Disclosure” and the “Desire Line.” Sadly, it is out of print, but you can usually find it at a used book dealer like
  • Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. Specifically about web usability, this book is straightforward and practical.

Article: “Understanding Health Information Needs and Gaps in the Health Care System in Uttar Pradesh, India,” by Nandita Kapadia-Kundu et al., (2012) Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 17:sup2, pp. 30–45 — particularly the “Usability of Information” section beginning on p. 41 of the PDF version.

Color Tools

  • Design Seeds: Harmonious color palettes based on photos of natural and domestic scenes.
  • Instant Eyedropper: Want to match a color from a pixel on your screen? Try this neat little tool.
  • Color Schemer: Enter any root color and get suggestions for complementary colors.

A (much) earlier draft of this post was published at on August 29, 2013.

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