Communication is the Key: 3 Design Concepts to Help You Improve It by@nikolao

Communication is the Key: 3 Design Concepts to Help You Improve It

Nikola O. HackerNoon profile picture

Nikola O.

Combines ideas from data science, humanities and social sciences. Enjoys thinking, science fiction and design.

Communication is the Key

Communication is the key to success in many areas of life. Think of all the healthy personal relationships, the level of your professional networking and negotiation skills, and the increased team productivity. Even though speaking comes naturally to many people, effective communication doesn't. Visual communication is often easier to understand than words, so it might be more accessible to first think about how you would visually communicate something and then translate that into writing or speaking. As with any visual art and design, speech and the written word have patterns, and some are universal.

Design Concepts for Communication

1. Levels of iconicity


Trineo, a graphic design studio, describes nine levels of iconicity in their course. It starts with mock-ups of the actual object and ends with formulas. I use coffee as an example in the image above, and you can notice a few things. Mock-ups are the closest analogy to the real thing, and you don't need specific education or experience to understand what it is.

Even if you have lived on an island far from civilization and you have no idea what coffee bags and cups are, you could get a good understanding of what they are from holding a mock-up. By looking at a photo or a realistic drawing of a cup with a coffee drink, you can still extract a reasonable amount of information without previous experience. However, with higher levels of iconicity and increasing abstraction, the demand for prior experience is higher.

The title says communication is the key, not visualization, so how is this relevant?

Iconicity emphasizes the relationship between the actual object and its representations. Specifically, how many features and traits of the more general idea are removed in the process of abstraction. If I use the word "coffee" and you have never heard of it, it will be challenging to explain to you what it is without an image.

Thinking about levels of iconicity can help you appreciate how challenging it is for people who have no idea about what you want to communicate to them. Also, it can help you think about the structure of what you want to say. You can start describing what people do with coffee and what motivates them to drink it and talk about the worldwide supply chain a bit later.

More realistic example: You are a database engineer, and you want to explain what you do to someone who works in a completely different field. Think about something relatable such as a shopping list. From there, I would continue like so: Imagine we collected shopping lists from everyone in the city. Now we want to store all of that information but need to do it in a way so that we can find the lists effectively based on where the person lives, or we can categorize the items later. Or, if you establish they know how to use tabular software such as Microsoft Excel, you can say that you work with data that doesn't fit into an excel table.

The lesson for your communication is to think about the level of abstraction the receiver needs. When you are familiar with a topic, you are comfortable with related abstract ideas, but the receiver might not be. Edit your thoughts.

2. Observation


I have been reading about design and art recently, and there is a lot of talk about observation. It's the idea of noticing the little things. Looking at works of other people and identifying patterns, reflecting on your feelings when you see a particular style or a color, and comparing your reactions to visual elements with responses of others. (I think you know where I'm going with this.)

The famous "what gets measured gets done" applies here. There are multiple ways you can express ideas and messages through words and sentences. Observing people's reactions can help you capture the information about whether the person understood and received your message in the way you meant it. Then you can reflect on the result and experiment with different approaches.

Experimenting on your own can be a lengthy process, so to save some time, observe others. Is there someone who you think is an excellent communicator? Try to analyze how they do it (e.g. structure and tone of the communication) and how you feel when consuming their content. If you want to improve at explaining complex concepts to anyone, I highly recommend reading Explaining p-values with puppies.

Another area where observation can come in handy in communication is humor. Jokes and context are a big topic in comedy and humor research (yes, humor research is real). No matter what you think about jokes and where the line is, you can probably accept that people are different. Noticing whether a joke is followed by bursts of laughter or uncomfortable smiles can help you determine appropriate context for specific jokes.

Observing people's reactions helps you understand their likes and dislikes, which, together with communication in general, is the key to forming personal and professional relationships.

3. Emphasis, Repetition, and White Space


Emphasis, repetition, and white space are three out of 7 design principles designers follow to create an attractive artwork or design. The emphasis in design is about directing the eye to the most crucial piece of information first. In presentations, talks, and pitches, it's about having a key message. Whether presented visually or not, information can be organized into a hierarchy. Once you identify the key messages in your communication (usually no more than 3), you can think about how to get them across. This is relatively straightforward in the visual format, e.g. use color contrast for emphasis. How do you create hierarchy in your writing or speaking?

The answer brings us to the principle of repetition. Repetition in design is vital to prevent "error detection" reaction of your brain. If multiple elements appear only once and are not linked by style, color or font, the design looks too busy and unappealing. Repeated elements help increase the feeling of familiarity.

We see this with branding and how a simple logo can encompass a whole set of expectations about a product's quality, reliability, and longevity. In nonvisual communication, you can use repetition in different examples and perspectives, focusing on the same core message. So the structure repeats, but the content changes (e.g. "for example A", "for instance B").

Having space is crucial for processing the presented information and reflecting on it - that's something you want to provide to your audiences. White spaces give designs some room for breathing and support for the visual hierarchy. They can also represent breaks in speech or the spaces between paragraphs.


Effective communication is the key to great things in life. Next time you work on an important email, write an article or talk to your parents and grandparents, remember to

  • consider what your audience already knows,
  • emphasize and repeat the core message,
  • give them space to reflect on the information,
  • observe their reactions for your further improvement.
Nikola O. HackerNoon profile picture
by Nikola O. @nikolao.Combines ideas from data science, humanities and social sciences. Enjoys thinking, science fiction and design.
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