A case of wasteful information design


Bad design hurts everyone.

I like to point out bad designs, not because I’m a pessimist, but because I sincerely believe we all learn from our mistakes – unless, of course, no one points them out.  Here’s an example of bad “information design:” a pamphlet paid for by the Government of Ontario, describing tax changes arising from the introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).

Apologia: as we’re still unpacking from our move, I haven’t got my scanner running yet (indeed, I’m not even sure where it is).  So I had to make do with something at work, and the quality of the image is less than impressive.  But it will do.

I received a small (15cm x 11.5cm) six-sheet pamphlet called What changes – and what doesn’t change – under the HST.  It’s distributed and paid for by the Government of Ontario (i.e. the taxpayer).  It describes commonly purchased items and whether or not the introduction of the HST will affect the total tax one must pay for each of them.  I think it’s a pedantic and wasteful document.  (There are other things I could complain about (colours, font sizes, etc.) but those are relatively minor, IMHO, compared to the sustainability aspects.)  Let’s look at one random page.

Poorle designed HST documentation

A random page from the HST document. (Click to enlarge)

This image shows changes for typical items in five categories.  The columns in each category give: the item, the amount of GST charged, the amount of PST charged, and the change arising from the application of the HST.

Here’s the problem: of the 38 items listed on this page, only 12 of them (less than 1/3) have different tax rates by application of the HST.  In fact, of the 124 items listed in total in the pamphlet, only 37 of them (about 30%) have different tax rates.  So why are there specific entries for all those items the taxes on which do not change?

It’s utterly worthless to report on the items the taxes of which remain the same.  One need only list the items that do change, and then simply state that “taxes on all other items remain unchanged” – or words to that effect.  This would have cut the pamphlet to half its size (there are extra, boilerplate pages with general information that would have to remain) and still served its purpose.

Assuming that, as a rule, one pamphlet would be sent to each household, and that there are over 4.5 million households in Ontario, then a shorter pamphlet would have saved more than 13.5 million sheets of 15cm x 23cm paper.  That’s more than 232,000 square metres of paper.  That’s over 32 regulation-sized soccer fields worth of paper, wasted, just for this one pamphlet.

Not to mention the ink, the carbon footprint of the machinery to print, fold, staple, and package the pamphlets, as well as ship and distribute them….

Granted, this is not very much waste compared to, say, the amount of crud spewed from tailpipes every day, or the carbon footprint of the Nanticoke coal-fired power station.  But this shows that the Ontario government really has missed the point of sustainable design.

One does not identify certain key things to be sustainable about.  One must change behaviour – personal, corporate, or governmental – at the most basic level.  That is, to be sustainable at all means to be sustainable about everything, not just about things that are politically expedient.  Being sustainable must pervade every activity and artifact – including a silly pamphlet about taxes.  And if you add up all the silly little things, they will turn out to be quite a large pile of stuff.  Changing one little thing may cause just one little change, but a tiny change to the way we act all the time can add up to some very significant changes.

To the Ontario government: you need to get some serious designers to review everything you do, right down to how goofy pamphlets are laid out, because you are, quite frankly, setting a bad example.


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