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Information overload: a new twist

8 January 2016

Information overload: a new twist

People often complain about information overload. They usually mean there's too much stuff coming their way via websites, emails, Twitter, Facebook and so on. They have a point. It is estimated that 300 billion emails are sent each day. Google receives more than four million search queries per minute. In the same time period there are about 300,000 tweets and 72 hours of new video content uploaded to YouTube.

So much for digital output, I want to complain about information overload in the form of posters and leaflets. And my ire is directed at the healthcare industry. Visit any GP surgery, hospital or dental practice and my bet is you'll see wall-to-wall posters and tables or racks full of leaflets.

This material explosion is easy to understand once you realise how information is often disseminated these days. Take, for example, the Bite Back at Mouth Cancer campaign launched recently by the Mouth Cancer Foundation. On the website is a video and instructions with images for members of the public to do a self-check for mouth, head and neck cancer. What a brilliant idea. Inevitably, and quite rightly, you can download a Bite Back at Mouth Cancer leaflet and a Bite Back at Mouth Cancer poster. Each is in Portable Document Format (PDF) for printing on a colour inkjet or laser printer. Then you put the poster on the wall in your healthcare setting and the leaflets on the table. The information is not time-limited so can stay there forever.

I did a quick search on Google for posters for GP practices and found them offered by the CQC, the BMA, Londonwide LMCs, NHS England, GP online, Action on Hearing Loss, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, the Department of Health and many, many more.

I can find no research on how people view a collection of posters but research1 on how people read (large) newspaper pages suggest they begin by looking at any images before moving to headlines. Photos and artwork were looked at the most, followed by headlines and advertising, then short news items ('briefs') and captions. Text was read the least.

I also don't know what quantity of closely-spaced posters means it's difficult to single out the one you're most interested in. Clearly it will depend on the visual impact of individual posters within the collection.

So how do we solve the poster overload problem? By going back to school! Teachers are masters of displays in the classroom and there are free resources to help them perfect the skill, as well as paid for courses they can attend.

Here are a few tips I've discovered:

  • change displays regularly to maintain interest
  • think about the eye level of the likely readers – lower for children, older people and people in wheelchairs
  • include titles for groups of posters e.g. 'general information for patients' or 'help with giving up'
  • align different size posters horizontally along their top edge or horizontally by their middle
  • gain ideas from displays in e.g. libraries (librarians are usually good at displaying material)


1. Holmqvist K, Wartenberg C. 2005. The role of local design factors for newspaper reading behaviour – an eye-tracking perspective. Lund University Cognitive Studies 127: 1-21.


About the author

Amanda Atkin is a change management consultant, focusing on the healthcare sector in which she has considerable expertise and experience. Amanda's skills range across contractual management, performance management, operational delivery and leadership development to strategic planning as well as governance and regulatory compliance.

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