Guest Post: And how did that make you feel?…by Bryan Mathers

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I’ve done a lot of work with the GO-GN team over the last year. I’ve really enjoyed it. Apart from being lovely people to work with, they are up for more creative visual expressions of their work.

Firstly, they have a penguin mascot. As it turns out, the team is not even sure where the penguin mascot came from. (I’m guessing down south…)

Secondly, they’re not short of crazy ideas, given the opportunity.

In fact, in working with lots of teams, it’s often struck me that people often need permission and a safe environment to be able to contribute a crazy idea. Some more than others. By the way, as far as I’ve seen, a crazy idea is just an idea that happens to seem crazy to someone at a particular point in time. It’s exactly this sort of idea that I listen out for.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the penguins. The GO-GN team asked me to create visual thinkery for their (what would be award-winning) Research Methodologies Handbook which was published in July of this year. And if you’ve had a glance through it, you’ll find a huddle of penguins in there generally misbehaving.

So what have penguins got to do with Research Methodologies? Or in fact, any academic publication taking itself seriously?

Well, not only are they the adopted mascot of GO-GN, and therefore a recognisable icon amongst the community, they are also disarming to the reader – their humour creates Cognitive Ease. Cognitive Ease is where something feels easy to process, even when it might not be. It’s important because it has an influence on our motivation to invest time and effort. When Professor Brian Cox unpacks the mysteries of the universe for you in a BBC documentary and it all makes sense – and then you try to pass on your newly-upgraded universe understandings to your partner in an informative manner, but then realise that you don’t really know what you’re talking about – that’s Cognitive Ease at work.

However, if Cognitive Ease exists, then so must Cognitive Unease (or I suppose a lack of Cognitive Ease). How are you with reading and understanding contracts? I’ve learned over time that once you understand the structure of a contract, where the meat of the contract lies and which parts are boilerplate clauses, it’s actually possible to digest it. However, because it feels like a contract, and I don’t read contracts that often (thank goodness) there’s a significant mental hurdle to get over. Every time it will languish at the bottom of my list of things to do. (There are some people who actually enjoy reading contracts. They are not to be trusted…)

Often written in single line-spaced Times New Roman font, contracts feel authoritative, sterile, unfamiliar, cryptic to the untrained eye. Eugh. I get the shivers just thinking about it. Cognitive un-ease – and, as far as I can see, it’s intentional.

I’ve often wondered what a contract would look like when presented in a non-linear way. I have a hunch the legal world could learn from software developers to take a more modular approach to layout. Maybe a visual overview at the start of the contract? Apologies – I digress again.

My point is (I think) that just because a document doesn’t contain images, doesn’t mean that it is without aesthetic. Take any document you’ve written, and change the font to Comic Sans. How different does it feel? Switch the font to Calibri – how does it feel now – MS Office circa 2010? How about Times New Roman? Too legal?

When we create something for others to read, we should ideally consider the reader, stepping in their shoes. Given a person feels how something is before the words get read, the aesthetic presents an immediate barrier or has the opportunity to create a gateway.

I leave you with this poem, probably from the 18th Century:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your document feel?

With mountains of words, and without any birds,

To readers, that’s not ideal…