Janice (Ginny) Redish is a specialist in plain language, writing for the web, and user experience research and design. She’s a linguist by training, and she’s always been interested in clarity and communication.
She’s passionate about language and content, as well as information design and usability. She is the original author of the international definition of plain language: that people should be able to find what they need; understand what they find; and, then, use it appropriately to meet their needs.
She set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America, and she’s the author of Letting Go of the Words—Writing Web Content that Works.
I had the pleasure to interview her where we talked about her work in the plain language arena.
Tell us a little bit about how you got started.
I’m a linguist by training, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. Today, I’d call myself a plain language writer, but I was not aware of plain language as a movement or as a goal until the late 1970s.
I was at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, DC, when the government put out a request for proposal for a project worrying about why adults have so much trouble understanding government documents. In a way, I was in the right place at the right time, as I’d been hired by AIR to do other work, particularly about education.
We were in a very good position to respond, and we won the project. So I had to go out and figure out what was going on. That was my introduction.
The government called it the Document Design Project (DDC). The DDC lasted for three years during which we did a lot of good plain language work and grew a plain language community.
One of the things we said in our proposal—and I think helped us win the project—was that we wouldn’t let the work die. We would use the government funding to set up an ongoing center. From the DDP, we created the Document Design Center (DDC), which lasted for close to 20 years.
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, partnered with AIR in the Document Design Project. From the DDP, CMU created the Communication Design Center where Karen Schriver, a plain language expert and active member of the international plain language community, was Director of Research through the 1980s.
What happened next?
I left AIR and became an independent consultant. Through the 25 years of my consulting practice, I have had the pleasure (and sometimes frustration) of working on many very interesting projects.
The Document Design Center continued at AIR, under the leadership first of Carolyn Boccella Bagin, who still does great plain language work through her consulting company, and then of Susan Kleimann. Susan renamed the DDC to be the Information Design Center, which was appropriate as people come to documents—in print or online—for the information. Susan now also has a consulting practice, Kleimann Communication Group, where she and her team have transformed several major U.S. government forms and notices through an extensive usability process.
Then, in 2003, Annetta Cheek started the Center for Plain Language. Joe Kimble, Susan Kleimann, Joanne Locke, Melodee Mercer, John Strylowski, and I were all involved with Annetta in starting the Center for Plain Language.
I see the Center for Plain Language very much as a continuation or a rebirth, if you will, of the Document Design Center. So if you ask me what happened to the Document Design Center, I would say: the Center for Plain Language—although, of course, it’s not a direct continuity.
Ginny is now “semi-retired”; but, for 25 years, she was the president of Redish & Associates, Inc. During those years, she helped major companies and government agencies communicate clearly both online and in print.
What do you think is your contribution to the movement?
That’s hard (laugh). The work that the Document Design Project and the Document Design Center did from the late 1970s through the 1980s, I think, really helped to make plain language more visible. My team at AIR created model documents in plain language. We wrote a book called Guidelines for Document Designers that had a tremendous influence. We put out a newsletter called Simply Stated for about 10 years. We started with a few hundred people whom we knew about. By the time the last issue went out, we had 18,000 people on the mailing list. And that was before the internet.
What are the current challenges of plain language?
We still have the challenge of convincing decision-makers that even though plain language may be hard to do, it’s financially worthwhile. That’s one challenge.
Another challenge is that legal documents, medical documents, technical documents have to be accurate as well as clear. Of course, one of the big points that I’ve been pushing for 30 or 40 years is that accuracy and clarity are not in conflict. In fact, plain language helps you make sure that you ARE accurate. But, again, not everyone is convinced of that truth.
We also have to deal with “Oh, you’re dumbing it down.” For this challenge, my mantra is “No. You’re respecting your busy reader’s time.”
Of course, I also know that it’s really important to improve education and literacy. It’s really sad that we have such a high percentage of people—not only in the United States, but I think around the world—who do not read very well. But that’s not the point. They have to deal with the document you’re writing at this moment, with whatever knowledge, motivation, ability they have right now. We have to write something that works for them.