Designing information

Designer's desktop

The influence of the graphical design of health information, regardless of the medium, is as important as the role of the content in producing something accessible, usable and meaningful for patients and the public.

Good design can help you to:

  • Control the flow of information: Take the patient on a journey through a subject where the content flows and has meaning and which ends with understanding
  • Bring a subject to life and make the information engaging and interesting
  • Present your audience with a consistent message and branding – about who you are and what you are all about
  • Inspire confidence and trust in you and your organisation
  • Shape a message to suit different audiences

For a design to be successful a designer needs a clear brief.  This needs to specify:

  • The intended audience
  • The intended message
  • Technical considerations
  • Branding guidelines
  • Logistical factors such as budget and schedule

DIY or use a professional?

Whether you choose to produce artwork yourself, or to use a professional designer, depends very much on your own abilities, resources and workload. Using a professional designer should ensure that you get a good result on time and on budget.

If you choose to produce artwork yourself you need to be aware of some of the key tools of graphic design: typography, imagery, colour and spacing.



For healthcare literature the key attributes are usually that the font should be clear, readable and feel trustworthy.

Typography is very important in design, its style, size and layout can change the way somebody views a piece of work. For example, different fonts can evoke different feelings and therefore give a range of meanings to a design. Also, the layout and formatting of type can affect the understanding of any written work. For healthcare literature the key attributes are usually that it be clear, readable and feel trustworthy.

There are keen debates about the relative merits of serif and sans-serif typefaces, although there is little academic evidence to suggest that either is less readable than the other. Other typographical factors such as size, line length, justification, paragraph spacing and hyphenation all play a larger part in making text easy to read and understand.


The use of images in a document can help to:

  • Illustrate objects or actions
  • Explain concepts or processes
  • Reinforce branding
  • Make a page more interesting and inviting

The choice and standard of images will have an impact on how a document is perceived. Poor quality clip art will look unprofessional and damage the reputation of its author.


Colour can be used to great effect when designing a document. It can help to:

  • Show the structure of information
  • Determine the mood of a document
  • Emphasise what is important
  • Give consistency or differentiation across a range of items

There are practical considerations associated with the use of colour, such as legibility, printing methods and cost. If producing a digital document for readers to print themselves be mindful of not using up their printer cartridges.


Not every square centimetre of space needs to be filled. Empty space can play an important part in helping a layout to look clear and inviting.


Producing clear, effective, professional documents need not be expensive. If you use a professional designer, giving a clear brief at the outset and having content finalised will cut down on wasted time and expense.

Printing costs can be minimised by being careful about how a document is printed and its print run. A large print run usually has a smaller unit cost than multiple small runs, but thought needs to be given as to how quickly it might go out of date. A document might not need to be printed at all and could just be made available as a digital file over the internet.

Analysing the effectiveness of a design

Design has a purpose or message therefore it is pointless making something just ‘look pretty’, it has to be effective. It is important to keep reminding yourself of the purpose or message throughout the design process.

It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of your design and the campaign as a whole (see section on Evaluation). Then new campaigns can be planned based on the successes and pitfalls of a previous project.

Information design

Information design is a subset of graphic design that is concerned with preparing and presenting information so that it can be used efficiently and effectively. Information design often includes more research than most graphic design, as well as user-testing as part of an iterative design process.  Typical areas where information design is used include medical and pharmaceutical information, way-finding, financial information and data journalism.

Top Tips

  1. Thumbs-upRemember that you are not designing for yourself; you are designing to communicate to others. Take the audiences needs, skills, and abilities, into consideration when developing your design as well as taking cultural differences into account.
  2. The RNIB have created guidelines to enable everyday information to be immediately accessed by more people. To achieve a clear print document which appeals to a wider audience, including elderly people and many others with sight problems, then text size should be 12-14 point, preferably 14 point. It helps readers if titles stand out as they become a natural break in the text. Make them a point size larger or in bold.
  3. For easy reading all body text should be left aligned, otherwise referred to as ragged right. This helps people follow where they are in a paragraph easier as all the line lengths are different. It is also less formal and therefore more personal to the reader.
  4. Don’t use blocks of capitalised letters, using all capitals in body copy looks like the words are being SHOUTED at you! Avoid the use of italics and underlining which cuts through the descenders of lowercase letters as both these features make text harder to read.
  5. Simplistic line art and diagrams can be very effective and are often used to support written instructions or used to explain how to use an item. Make sure line weights are not too thin, or they will not reproduce well, and that any diagrams are clearly labelled.
  6. Try to be respectful when using pictures. Funny cartoons can lighten a difficult or sensitive situation but risk being disrespectful. Humour is subjective and the NHS guidelines say to avoid it unless you can use it in a way that still shows care, respect and professionalism.
  7. When it comes to photography a well taken image can have great impact on a piece of written work. If the photograph is poor resolution, blurred or badly set up then it can produce a negative response and make the organisation look unprofessional. Poor presentation may signify poor quality care from the reader’s perspective even though they may not consciously know why.
  8. Decide on the colours for a design before starting or the application will look like an after-thought and the design will not gel. Most colours evoke emotional and psychological implications and this may help you in making a decision. For example, red = hot, warmth, passionate, danger and urgent, blue = cold, calm, sadness, professional and quality and green = nature, healthy, refreshing and friendly.
  9. In western cultures most people read from the upper left corner of a page, work across to the right and then down to the bottom left finishing at the bottom right, so consider this in the placement of objects.
  10. Don’t make the mistake of using every bit of space on a page; “white space” is effective so use it. A message is clearer if it is not competing with other elements on the page. Also think about spacing and margins between objects so that items are not crowded.
Acknowledgement: Sarah Smith, PIF, Claire Blood, South Tees Hospital Trust and Brain Parkinson, Making Sense
Page last updated: 1/11/12