Nearly 18 months ago I overheard a conversation on LinkedIn by two colleagues. Well, kind of colleagues. Carolyn was an ex-client that I’d not seen for a while and Joh and I met — even though we had a similar professional network — in a pilates class.
Carolyn and Joh were ‘talking’ about Australia’s negligence in not identifying and promoting plain English.
England, Ireland and – of course New Zealand (always punching above their weight) – each have Plain Language Awards but Australia does not. Carolyn and Joh riffed about plugging the gap. I muscled into the conversation because …
Plain Language (sometimes called Plain English or Plain Writing) is clear and concise. It avoids complex vocabulary. It is free of clichés and needless technical jargon, and should be appropriate to the audience’s developmental or educational level and their familiarity with the topic. (Wikipedia)
I butted into the conversation because I knew some Plain Language awards include design as part of the mix. From my perspective design is integral to the mix. It’s not semantics, it’s an important difference. In my view design and words are interwoven – one without the other makes communication more difficult. Language, structure and presentation work together to help readers access information, understand it and act more quickly.
The concept of clear communication fits brilliantly with my design mantra:
Design brings clarity to complex issues.
From clarity comes understanding.
Understanding leads to knowledge.
Doesn’t matter how great the design is, if the content is badly written the audience falls away quickly.
Similarly, a page of brilliantly written words set edge to edge, top to bottom will only engage and hold the attention of – dare I say it – the fanatical or the academic 😉
So, Joh, a lawyer, ex-CEO of the Victorian Law Foundation and now Head of Governance Risk and Compliance at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and Carolyn, ex-journo and comms manager and now a communications specialist who works with government and private sector clients, and I (one of these things is not like the other one…) started a passion-project: the 2019 Australian Clear Communication Awards.
Our passion project
Now is a good time to add, not all side-hustles are started to make money.
This is most certainly a passion project.
Carolyn, Joh and I are all at a stage in our career where we can give back to our industries. We all feel strongly that the vulnerable in society – arguably the neediest – have the most difficulty accessing information. Most publicly available information is too complicated, too difficult to understand and often, not written for the target audience.
So, we’re 12 months in.
The awards have opened for business.
Time to take a breath and consider what I’ve learnt:
- Plan for change. It is not a stretch to say at the beginning of the project we were all in different places in our careers, and since then commitments have changed. Adapting to change has been constant.
- We all work different ways. We each solve finding extra time in our day differently. Early on, we needed to physically meet to plan and build a roadmap. We did that mainly in the bleary early hours of a Saturday mornings or after work (easier in Summer than the dead of Winter). Now, most of the time we’re meeting online (apart from one impromptu meeting in a bank setting up an account). Which brings me to….
- Finding the same free time is tough. If you drew a venn diagram, our free time does not overlap. Carolyn is an early riser and does much of her work at the crack of dawn before her day job begins. I’m interstate twice a month and usually squeeze in time in the middle of a day. Joh works a full day, then comes home to do later into the night. It means one of our conversations can. literally. go. for. days. So, it’s important to…
- Be organised, online. Luckily, we are all organised but having an online program to keep everything together is critical. When a conversation goes over many days, being able to remind yourself of what’s happening by re-reading a thread is valuable. We settled on using Basecamp, but I think there’s a few apps that would work as well. Our conversations are categorized in messages, docs and files uploaded in folders and all are accessible anywhere, anytime. I think it has worked brilliantly.
- Having three perspectives is valuable. Having three co-founders with three different perspectives has been challenging but valuable. The result is award criteria that is robust and resilient because it’s been considered from the communications, plain language and design perspective. We’re drawing experience from three vastly different careers and networks. Which brings me to…
- The generosity of judges. I’m gobsmacked at the expertise and generosity of our judges. It would have been time-consuming and perhaps even impossible to gather such an esteemed group of judges from one network. With three canvassing it has been relatively easy. We are indebted to so many for being so generous with their time.
Would I recommend getting involved in a passion project? Absolutely.
I’ve been stretched way out of my comfort zone, and that’s always a good thing.
I’ve learnt heaps about two different skills sets.
And better than either of those, I now count two colleagues as real friends. Joh said at one stage ‘it’s like wading through treacle’, and while true, it’s while we were wading together we got to know each other’s families, celebrated birthdays together and grew to understand each other’s challenges.
Clear communication – it’s not just about words.
Want more information like this delivered to your inbox every Wednesday? The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.
Carol Mackay is a graphic designer with 30+ years experience managing Mackay Branson design, a successful Melbourne design studio co-founded with Greg Branson.
In 2018 Carol pivoted from client-driven work to (re)join Greg at the Design Business Council. There she uses her experience to help designers build robust businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.
In 2018 she co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019
Carol has the mindset of a designer and the focus of a business-owner. Her special skill is comprehension – the ability to listen, understand the situation and use design to translate complex messages into plain language.