No single history

There are many histories of information design that could be constructed. Indeed, at this point in the development of our profession, there are probably almost as many histories of our practice as there are practitioners of information design. This is because we have each come to the field from different backgrounds. Some have come from a background in writing, others from ergonomics, human factors or cognitive science, others have come from graphic design or engineering. And the list could go on. Each of these origins gives us a different history, a different way of telling the story of our origins.

I have found it useful to construct a history of information design as a story of transitions.

What do I mean by transitions?

In using the term ‘transition’ I am thinking of a transition in state rather than a movement from one situation to another. I am trying to give a sense of something quite radical. Just as the transition in state from, say, ice to water involves something other than movement from place to place, so I want to suggest that the transitions I have gone through in thinking about information design have been profound. While many of the ingredients persist across transitions, such as a concern for relationship between visual elements and a concern for the relationship between designs and users, the way in which I have tried to integrate these and newer concerns—the philosophical and theoretical assumptions that underlie practice—has undergone a profound intellectual change. If I were working within an area of science, I would suggest that with each transition I and my colleagues have gone through a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense.

Thus for me, information design is not a cumulative pluralist tradition in which, over the years, I have added a diversity of insights from multiple disciplines. On the contrary, at each transition I have reconstructed the notion of information design, fundamentally reshaping what I mean and understand by its practice; in other words, I have changed the philosophical assumptions underlying my understanding of practice.
Necessarily, my reflections and construction of these transitions have been largely from within the Australian context—in particular from within the Communication Research Institute—and I would be reluctant to say that my reflections offer firm generalisations that can be extended to other contexts. Indeed to suggest as much would be to ignore one of the most important and finely balanced tensions that information designers continually struggle with—the tension between the specificity of particular information contexts and the generalisability of principles and methods across a range of contexts. Nonetheless, I would like to share with you some of my experiences, and leave it to you to judge whether or not they are of use in your own context.

Early visions of design

Many of the transitions we have gone through had long been anticipated by an earlier generation of visionary designers and educators. As Moholy-Nagy observed in 1947:

Design has many connotations. It is the organisation of materials and processes in the most productive, economic way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is not a matter of facade, of mere external appearance; rather it is the essence of products and institutions, penetrating and comprehensive. Designing is a complex and intricate task. It is the integration of technological, social and economic requirements, biological necessities, and the psychophysical effects of materials, shape, colour, volume, and space: thinking in relationships (Moholy-Nagy 1947).

I discovered this and the other writings that came out of the Bauhaus tradition in the mid-sixties when I was researching design theory and developing an early course in Information Design at Sunderland Polytechnic (Sless 1997).

Some of you here today would clearly identify with this interdisciplinary vision of design. But in its early execution—in post-war design training and practice—the emphasis of design tended to be on the ‘harmonious balance of elements ‘—the modernist formalisms—focusing on product rather than institution. A prime example of this approach was Kepes (1944)

The visual language is capable of disseminating knowledge more effectively than almost any other vehicle of communication. With it man can express and relay his experiences in object form. Visual communication is universal and international: it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as the literate. Visual language can convey facts and ideas in a wider and deeper range than almost any other means of communication.

Such strong belief in the power of visual communication would make many of us today feel uneasy. But such a belief has long been the basis of graphic designers’ training, giving designers an entirely false sense of confidence in their visual judgment. Further it inhibited the exploration of the wider relationships that influence the quality of design.

Thus the ideal of ‘thinking in relationships’ tended to be restricted to the relationships between visual elements. The ‘social, economic, biological and psychophysical‘—the critical interdisciplinary mix of contemporary design—was yet to be developed.

From designing objects to designing relationships

Beginning in the 1960s, there were initiatives in many areas of design—including the work I was then involved with at the Sunderland Poly—to broaden the scope of design methods to incorporate a more systematic concern for these wider relationships. In doing so, these initiatives ushered in for me the first major transition. Drawing on psychology and in particular ergonomic research and methods, our little group at Sunderland was making a transition from the design of information artefacts per se to the design of information artefacts that took careful account of the information users (Sless 1970, 1972, 1975, 1978, 1981). Our early attempts at user-centred design were bold, radical. Our attempts differed significantly from the attempts that are now becoming part of mainstream thinking in design: we were intent on transforming the entire design process, whereas more recent work has been intent on attaching a concern for the user onto existing design processes.

For example, Karen Schriver, in her recent book on teaching user-centred design, suggests that information design—or document design as she prefers to call it—is a cumulative tradition involving a marriage of art and science (Schriver 1996). Jorge Frascara (1988) has described the recent interest in user-centred design as a shift in the designer’s centre of attention from the interrelationship of visual components to that between audience and the design, recognising the receiver as an active participant in the construction of messages. Similarly, Victor Margolin (1988) recently suggested a need to expand the boundaries of design, commenting that:

There is much that designers and manufacturers need to learn about the evolving relationship between products and users. (p 64)

But these are not radical transitions in point of view, just ever-expanding pluralist interdisciplinary mixes of issues.

I have never shared this ecumenical view. For me the transition I went through in the mid-sixties was a radical shift in point of view in which much of the old was not incorporated so much as rethought in the new. I and my colleagues (Sless 1996 ) were quite conscious that we were changing a traditional design course in which the dominant concern was for visual relationships, to a course which also included the relationship between designs and users. However, this was not simply a matter of adding a new concern within an existing paradigm; we changed the paradigm. We made a transition from a formalist practice with its roots in the realist philosophy of romanticism, to an empirical and experimental practice with its philosophical roots in a blend of empiricism and post-Kantian constructivist philosophy. These practices arise from quite different world views, and lead to quite different design methods and criteria for evaluating design quality.

Many people in design education are still debating the contradictions between formalist aesthetics and empirical research methods. They have yet to go through the type of transition I went through in the 1960s and achieve a synthesis. In many design schools today the integration has either not occurred or is highly fragmented, with the studio staff uneasily eyeing the psychologists down the corridor and grumbling about how much valuable studio time is being lost to ‘theory’. Indeed much of the contemporary debate within information design hovers around the irreconcilable differences between these two world views. There has been little integration, and the transition to a new type of coherent design process that properly integrates these differences has yet to occur.

Meanwhile, back in the 60s and early 70s, having gone through a transition that gave a new type of coherence to the design process (Sless 1975, and 1978), I was grappling with the detailed implications of this new approach to design and how it could change the nature of design education (Sless 1970, 1975, 1977, 1978).

In the mid seventies, however, with the offer of a job in Australia at Flinders University, and frustrated with the inertia in the art and design education system, I gave up the idea of changing design education and moved my attention towards a deeper consideration of the underlying theory and towards a changing of my own design practices.

As I read more widely in the humanities, particularly in philosophy and criticism, I began to have serious doubts about the assumptions that had shaped my first transition.

I became aware that there were serious problems with the empiricism that had been so much part of the driving force behind the transition from formalist to user-centered design. It became clear to me that objective scientific evidence—the type of evidence we most valued in making judgments about whether a design might work or not—was not necessarily either objective or even scientific. Indeed the very categories—objective and subjective—became irrelevant to my thinking, and I eventually replaced them with the much more subtle notion of position (Sless 1986). Moreover, it became apparent to me that there were a whole range of social and political issues which were extremely important in design, but which could not be addressed within the framework of user-centered design.

I worked through these issues in a number of papers and books written between 1976 and 1987.

For example, after reviewing the research on ‘effective communication’ in information design, I concluded in 1981 that:

a more sensitive understanding of the user’s requirements for the task can lead to effectiveness [using] an ethnography of communication as opposed to a laboratory investigation of communication. (Sless, 1981, p 155)

The idea of ethnographic methods being more appropriate than experimental methods foreshadowed another transition. In a contribution I made to an issue of Icographics in 1985, I suggested:

The new information age will require many information designers. They will have to be capable of taking information users into account as part of their professional activity. This will require a redefinition of their job, an acknowledgment of their own limitations and an informed and sensitive awareness of the needs of the information user. The last of these can only be achieved by forming better theories about users, developing methods of design research that are not dependent on outside expertise, and acquiring an informed sense of the history of information design, combining all these to create new conventions to meet new communication needs and technologies (Sless, 1985c, p 2).

Here too I was foreshadowing a break from the empiricist past.

The opportunity to move into something new arose when in 1985 I set up the unit that became the Communication Research Institute.

The Institute was set up specifically to help industry and government improve the quality of their communication with people. As such we had to confront the real-world political, social and economic issues which information design had to resolve if it was to make a contribution to improving the quality of communication between organisations and people.

For design to become ‘penetrating and comprehensive’, design methodologies needed to be transformed, yet again, to include the relationships between people and institutions—the ‘social and economic requirements’ foreshadowed in Moholy Nagy’s vision. Notions such as readers, implied authors, genres, relations of power, control and resistance; and categories such as stakeholders, citizens, clients and consumers—all vital to understanding information design penetratingly and comprehensively—needed to be included within the design process.

There were others, with solid industrial as well as research experience who were aware of these issues, though they chose to remain working within the conventional empirical research tradition. For example, Ben Schneiderman—a leading contributor to research on user centred interface design—commented on the limitations of experimental methodologies to solving design problems.

The social and political environment surrounding the implementation of a complex information system is not amenable to study by controlled experimentation…The experienced project leader knows that organisational politics and the preferences of individuals may be more important than the technical issues in governing the success of an interactive system. (Schneiderman 1987 p 393)

Schneiderman did not go on to develop design methods for dealing with the social and political environment, but we found ourselves compelled to do so. We regarded it as unacceptable to say that a design might have worked but for the politics. We thought this was missing the point. Given the major role that political, social and economic issues played in the outcome of design projects, we thought it important to develop methodologies that took account of these issues.

By 1987 it was clear to me that I had embarked on a new transition (Sless 1987). To understand the significance of this next transition, you need to know that another aspect of my research was concerned with the philosophy of communication. I was interested in the basic assumptions that underlie any notions of communication. Until the mid 80s, I was entirely skeptical about claims that communication was a subject in its own right. But with the establishment of the Institute, and the completion of a major study on the nature of communication (Sless 1986), I came to the view that communication was indeed a phenomenon in its own right, and that it was not reducible to something else, whether that something else was psychology, cognitive science, cultural studies or economics. Moreover, the methodology for studying this phenomenon was quite different and was based on entirely different philosophical assumptions.

In retrospect, it is clear that I was moving from a constructivist position—an information processing and transmission view of communication, grounded in psychology—to a constructionist view of communication, which involves our use of the conversational metaphor and a logic of positions (Penman 1993).

It may seem that the difference between constructivism and constructionism is one of those trivial academic distinctions, but it is not.

To give a sense of the distinction, I would like to quote from a brief article by W. Barnett Pearce—a leading constructionist researcher—who provides an excellent starting point for understanding the difference between constructivism and constructionism. He says:

Although it is an oversimplification, it is useful to say that constructivists see communication as a cognitive process of knowing the world and social constructionists see it as a social process of creating the world. constructivists foreground perception while social constructionists foreground action. (author italics, Pearce 1995, p 98)

This shift in focus has had a profound effect on my research into information design practice.

Among the casualties of this second transition were social psychology and cognitive science. This is perhaps ironic, given that it was from these disciplines that much of the impetus came for the first transition. The transition from formalism to user-centered design drew heavily both on the findings and methods of these empirical behavioural science disciplines.

The only recognisable persistent element from these empirical disciplines is user testing. But even this has undergone a transformation. Instead of talking about user testing, I am much more comfortable talking about participation and collaboration with people. Put simply, I and my colleagues work with people to arrive at useful outcomes—and we do not need to posit minds, ideas, attitudes, etc. to do so. Much of the ways of thinking associated with social psychology and cognitive science have become unnecessary.

Much of my work and that of my colleagues at our Institute over the last ten years has been informed by this type of thinking, and I am pleased to see that others in the design community are espousing similar ideas. For example, recent interviews with Edwin Schlossberg and John Seely Brown in Mitchell’s recent book New Thinking in Design seem to be converging on a similar view of design (Mitchel 1997).

But I continue to observe with some sadness that very few information designers have made this more recent transition, let alone the earlier one, and some have no desire to do so. Further, our undergraduate and post graduate courses have yet to offer design students the full range of experiences and instruction for making these transitions.

A new transition

But nothing stands still. Since the late eighties I have been working on a number of projects that seem to suggest that we are moving through another type of transition that, in its turn, is presenting us with new types of design problems, requiring new methods and ways of thinking about information design.

This most recent transition is radical in an altogether different way. Design originated in the twentieth century as part of the mass production process. Designers gave form to single objects that were then reproduced many times over. Some of my recent work is concerned with creating sets of rules that allow the large scale rapid production of an infinite variety of unique objects.

Two things make this transition possible: first, the growing power of information technology to organise and manipulate graphic material; second, and more importantly, advances in our thinking and understanding of the complex relationships between people and information.

I would like to illustrate aspects of this transition using two recent Institute projects. Undoubtedly, others are engaged in similar projects; the influence of new information technologies is highly pervasive, and similar ways of thinking seem to spring up simultaneously in different parts of the globe.

These projects have two things in common. First, they each build on the methodologies and findings from the previous transitions: they each used evidence from testing designs with user to discover whether or not a design provides people with appropriately accessible and useable information; and they each take account of the complex institutional and social frameworks within which the artifacts have to function, assessing the quality of the long term relationship between people and institutions. Second, and this is what distinguishes this new transition, these projects are concerned with designing whole systems rather than individual artifacts Instead of designing objects for the mass production of single artifacts, these systems lead to the customised production of a large number of unique artifacts

By looking at certain aspects of these projects it is possible to see that something different is being designed here.

1. Writing about medicines for people

This project—commissioned by the then Department of Human Service and Health—was to design a set of usability guidelines to help the pharmaceutical industry provide consumers with accessible and useable information about pharmaceutical products. Our task was not to design a single artifact, rather we had to design a system that would enable non-information designers to create Consumer Product Information (CPI) to a consistently high standard. The outcome of this project and a full account of the methodology we used has already been published (Sless and Wiseman 1994, Penman, Sless and Wiseman 1996). Here I would like to bring out one particular point that shows the nature of this new transition in information design methods.

It is important at the outset to understand why our design was at the system level, not at the level of designing individual CPI. In Australia, with an ethnically diverse population of approximately 17 million people, there are about 50 companies who in aggregate sell over 5000 different pharmaceutical products for which they are legally obliged to provide CPI. There is a constant stream of new products, and the information about many existing products has to be continually revised to take account of new clinical and experimental data on the risks and benefits associated with their use. While it would be feasible with our known design methods to design any particular CPI to a high standard, there are not enough information designers in Australia, or for that matter anywhere in the world, to design and then redesign particular CPIs for particular products individually.

The problem, like many of those I shall discuss today are on a very large scale, and the scale itself demands a subtly new type of approach to information design.

The scale is, however, unlike that which gave rise to the design profession in the earlier part of this century. There the problem was how to design a product for mass production—the design of single objects to be produced for many people. The CPI system we designed is based on a different production system.

The production, using a dot matrix or laser printer, takes place on-demand and at the point-of-sale, when a consumer buys medicine from a pharmacist.

Using these guidelines, each particular CPI is written, revised, and tested with potential users by medical writers in pharmaceutical companies.

Thus in this type of information design project, we designed a system that enables others to produce and modify many information artifacts, each to be manufactured on demand. It is this system level design, rather than the design of particular artifacts that marks this transition.

2. FormsDesigner

This project was funded partly by Apple Computers and partly by the Australian government. Its purpose was to develop a software program that would enable non-designers to create public use forms for both screen and paper systems to a high standard. The product demonstrated that it was possible to build into a software tool a set of grammatical rules for good forms design, that could be used by non-designers. In some respects, this project is similar to the CPI project in that it is a set of tools and procedures to be used by non-designers.

Again the need for such a product arises partly because the sheer number of paper and electronic forms is such that there are not enough information designers to do the work.

But FormsDesigner has a much more generalised function than the CPI usability guidelines. In principle it can lead to an infinite variety of products, all within the same rule system. Thus the design in this case is of a computer program—a set of rules and methods and interfaces for combining and controlling graphic elements to produce unique products for multiple users. Once again, this project suggests a new type of design problem at a different level from that of designing a single object.

3. Insurance notices

This project—commissioned by National Mutual, one of Australia’s largest insurance companies—was to design a system for producing many thousands of individual notices for policy holders, using a high speed laser printer. Once again scale played an important role, but there was also greater complexity than in the other projects discussed so far. There were, for example, 13 basic notice types that could be sent from four different addresses, covering five major products, some of which could have up to 12 supplementary products attached to them, and each policy holder could have a variety of direct or indirect relationships with the company, a variety of payment options, and a range of different intervals when payments fell due. The potential number of permutations and combinations—all strictly governed by National Mutual’s business rules and marketing objectives—was large. Add to this the fact that each policy holder had a unique name, address, policy maturity date, and amount insured, and no two notices were the same.

Thus the problem in this instance was to design a system that in many ways is the antithesis of mass production. Instead of a system that took a single design and mass produced multiple copies, we designed a single system of high level rules that produced a large number of unique artifacts, customised for each person who received them.

4. Labelling regulation

Finally, I turn to a project that is still under development. This is an example of a project that was taken on by the Institute, initially without any external sponsors. Our Board of Governors, who advise us on the direction we should take, requested us in the late Eighties to take an interest in product information and labelling. Our first study, of the various interests that controlled the design of labels, pointed clearly to the government regulatory system as the main controlling influence on label design. Our study showed, not surprisingly, that current regulations and, importantly, the principles governing those regulations led inevitably to poor information design (Shulman and Sless 1992).

In the wake of this study we published a number of papers that were highly critical current labelling practice and research (Sless 1993, Wiseman and Sless 1994). In 1994, with some support from government funding, we undertook a model project, redesigning some labels to show that it was possible to improve the usability of labels by applying information design methods (Rogers et al 1995). We also demonstrated in this project that in order to make the labels useable we had to violate the current labelling regulations. The point was not lost on either industry, consumers, or government.

Our findings were taken up by two government inquiries (Industry Commission 1995, Federal Bureau of Consumer Affairs 1995) and we were funded by these inquiries to hold a forum at which we invited all the key interests in labelling regulation—consumer groups, industry, and the regulators—to discuss the future of labelling regulation in Australia (Seymore 1996).

As a result of that process, the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs began a major initiative to overhaul the regulations so that labels are more useful and informative for consumers, and we have made available some of our Institute’s resources to help with this initiative.

The information design challenge in this case is not dissimilar to the CPI usability guidelines but with a number of important differences. First, our concern for social and institutional issues—through our challenging of existing institutional practices—is much more overt. Having identified one of the major reasons why labels were poorly designed—the labelling regulations—we deliberately acted to bring about a change in those regulations. Thus our concern here is at an altogether different level, concerned with reforming an aspect of our society, albeit a small one.

Into the future

But there is no reason to stop at labelling. Many areas in our legal and administrative systems are governed by the same crippling principles that lead to poor information design in labels. As information designers, we have a professional responsibility to bring about change in these bureaucratic systems. Slowly this work is progressing. For example the Australian Securities Commission—the body responsible for regulating companies and businesses in Australia—recently sought advice on how they might go about regulating the information financial advisers give potential investors using ideas from information design (Sless 1996). They have subsequently, in collaboration with industry, commissioned us to develop performance standards for financial documents.

This work is leading to the design of a new set of regulatory principles that take account of the diverse range of groups with an interest in the regulations and the usability of the regulated information.

Now, I suggest to you that this most clearly shows a transition in the scale and type of problem that information design can and should undertake.

A brief caution

We are living through an unusual moment in history. Government and business leaders in our time seem to believe that being open and fair with citizens and consumers, and taking people’s interests into account, is good for government and business. Historically, this is unusual. Power, profitability and equity make strange bedfellows. The moment might not last.

Much of the impetus for this momentary phase comes from the highly visible consumer market, where good customer relations has been invoked as yet another way of trying to sell more and more in an already saturated market. If governments and business come to the view that being nice to people is unnecessary and that profitability can be increased in some other way, then the current moment—in which information designers are in much demand—will disappear.

After all, even though it is highly visible, the consumer market accounts for only about one sixth or one seventh of the total economy of traded resources, commodities, and services. It is not as all important as it might seem.

Thus we cannot be sure of a future in which there will be an ever increasing demand for our services.

To summarise

I would like to end by briefly summarising my construction of the transitions in information design spanning this century. In the early part of this century, most obviously in the Bauhaus, there occurred a transition from the crafting of single objects to design for mass production. By mid century designers began to broadened the conception of design and made a transition that enabled them to take account of an object’s usability. In the Eighties, designers broadened the scope of design methods further and made a transition from designing for usability to designing the long term relationship between people and institutions. Finally, in the nineties, information designers are designing rule systems for the production of customised information, and also designing the social rule systems that could make good information design the norm rather than the exception.

To return to Moholy-Nagy’s exhortation that as designers we should think in relationships: I think we are slowly getting better at doing so.


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