NYC Information Designers (Re)Unite!

February 4, 2016

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Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me what the information design scene was like in New York City. Surely, one would think that such a design-rich, tech-savvy communications industry hub like New York City would have something going on. I responded with a blank face: “What information design scene?”

At the time, there were a few companies and people explicitly doing information design work, and occasional events showcasing some aspect of information design, usually dataviz or infographics. But there wasn’t really a scene to speak of — no collective presence or community doing stuff consistently and visibly enough that you could point to and say “those are the folks you want to hang with if you’re interested in information design.”

That’s about to change. But first, some background.

Back in 2012, the Information Design NYC Meetup group was founded with the intent of bringing professionals, students, enthusiasts, and others connected to the field together to share knowledge, keep current on trends, see what others are doing, and get to know one another. The first event, an evening of presentations by three information design professionals, drew quite a crowd and rave reviews followed. Sadly, activity halted soon after and the group fell into a lull. I’ll admit my involvement wasn’t as active as it could have been.

Fast forward to December 2015. I received an e-mail that the group was about to be shut down if another organizer didn’t come forward from among the members. Rather than wait and see what would happen — and potentially let the only information design-specific group I knew of in the New York area fade away if no new organizer appeared — I took a chance and stepped up to the organizer role. It was a spontaneous decision, more emotion than reason, but I think it was the right one.

I am extremely happy to say that co-organizer Sheila Pontis and I have officially opened registration for our first event of the year — Information Design: Who, What, Why. It’s intentionally not another show-and-tell or lecture by somebody famous (although we’re planning some of those later on). Nor is it your typical networking event. Instead, it’s a mix of brief presentation and info-designy activities to encourage people to share their own views and personal stories. There’s considerable diversity of thought and practice right here in New York City, and this event will hopefully bring that to the surface. The point isn’t to conclusively define information design in a way that all will agree with, but rather, to reflect what it looks like today in order to broaden awareness and understanding. And have a fun evening making some new friends in the process.

How the event pans out and what comes next depends on a few factors, but we’re optimistic. Reviving a platform-based community of interest and running events is like a second job, and a ton of work and volunteer effort goes into just that. Seasoned leaders and planners of other groups we’ve spoken to can attest to that. There are realities on the participant side of such groups: varying interests and interest levels, limited time and energy, competing commitments, etc. Our hope is that there are people who care enough to not only come to events but to help build the community by leading and contributing to conversations, offering guidance to newcomers, teaching what they know, proposing event ideas, and finding new ways to make the group better.

So, if you’re interested in information design and you’re in the New York metro area, consider joining the Information Design NYC Meetup group. These are the folks you want to hang with if you’re interested in information design.


Rethinking Design for Safety

January 30, 2016

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We all struggle with the tension between the way we aspire to be and the way we are. Constructs like the New Year’s resolution only intensify the tug-of-war between the ideal vision of ourselves and the human creature we know ourselves to be (how’s that resolution holding up, by the way?). Often, we resolve to make lifestyle changes that help make us slimmer, healthier, more attractive. But how often do we resolve to make ourselves safer and more resilient amid life’s countless, growing hazards and ever-present risks?

Not often enough, I’d say.

Granted, we can’t all plan for every threat and keep safety top of mind all the time, although many of us do recognize the need to make reasonable provisions for dire situations. But why do some people knowingly adopt self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors that jeopardize their well being? Why do some people disregard concrete warnings that place them squarely in harm’s way and choose instead to take their chances? Especially in the context of information design, which can be used to speed understanding and instigate action in urgent situations, how do we deal with human irrationality in the face of real danger?

What plays out over and over again, from climate change to car accidents, hurricanes to earthquakes, is Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. It’s the one where the grasshopper chose not to heed the warning of the industrious ant who urged him to prepare for winter’s food shortage, only to lay dying of hunger when winter finally came. In an information design context, the ant represents the multitude of efforts by government agencies, public health and safety organizations, and engaged citizens to inform, alert, and prepare the public in the event of a looming threat or sudden emergency. And the grasshopper, well, that’s a sizable portion of the general public.

It’s true that most people do take safety seriously and make some effort to follow the standard guidelines depending on where they live: they install fire alarms and fire extinguishers, stock up on non-perishable food, make a family evacuation plan, prepare “go” bags, and do first aid and CPR training (this should be part of “Human Being 101” education for everyone). And when situations grow more urgent, many people comply with emergency broadcasts and police instructions to relocate or find shelter, rather than suffer the consequences. The broadcasts, guides, and other information that gets out to the public may not always be the clearest or most legible (much of it set in all caps and with plenty of red), but for the most part, they manage to get the job done.

However, there are the Harry Randall Trumans of the world, who stubbornly refuse to take action even when given preliminary warning and mounting evidence that their lives are threatened. Mr. Truman, the 83-year old lodge owner who lived at the foot of Mount Saint Helens, an active volcano in Washington state, made it resoundingly clear that he wasn’t going to leave despite numerous signals that the volcano was awakening (a 4.2 earthquake, steam venting, and a noticeable bulge emerging on the side of the mountain) and the urging of his community. On May 18, 1980, the north face of the volcano exploded, producing molten rock, mud, and ash that reached for miles. Mr. Truman was presumed buried under 150 feet of volcanic debris.

Information designers need to recognize the limitations of the artifacts they create as well as the realities of all the people they design for — the sensible and the irrational — when it comes to safety. The most brilliantly executed piece of information design, whether it’s a data visualization, infographic, warning poster, or instruction manual, means nothing if it doesn’t click with the audience and achieve what it’s supposed to. It must live up to its goal as best it can. Before the content gathering, data analysis, type choice, color palette selection, and all the other usual design tasks happen, there has to be a clear intent behind a message and careful consideration of its delivery: Who needs to know this? What do they care about? Why should they care about this? What do they need to do about it? What could prevent them from taking action? What are the consequences of inaction? Even when it seems all these questions are answered and all available insights are folded into the final design, success isn’t guaranteed. Proof of performance comes from real-life use in the field.

Three examples illustrate the general disconnect between information design artifacts and how people use, or don’t use, them:

Disaster Preparedness Tokyo

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Tokyo is a city prone to earthquakes, floods, nuclear reactor accidents, and other threats. In late 2015, the Disaster Preparedness Tokyo (Tokyo Bousai) guide was distributed to all Tokyo households, along with a map of disaster relief facilities corresponding to the household’s ward. Overall, it ticks many “effective information design” boxes: it’s inviting, easy-to-understand, and comprehensive. There’s even an adorable little rhinoceros mascot named “Bosai,” endearing hand-drawn illustrations, and a manga comic section to liven up pages of otherwise dead-serious content. So what’s the problem? It’s too comprehensive, clocking in at over 300 pages! Sure, it’s all important stuff, but realistically, who would have the patience to sit and take all that in before a disaster, let alone during one? It’s unclear what other efforts exist to complement the guide and reinforce its content, and I’m also not sure how receptive Japanese culture is to detailed manuals (versus American culture), but as a stand-alone piece, it could easily go unread, leaving agencies responsible for disaster relief to pick up the slack with more boots on the ground when trouble strikes.

NYC Choking First Aid Poster

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A common sight in most eateries (and a requirement by many health departments), the choking poster is meant to provide at-a-glance instructions for safely removing stuck food from someone’s airway and restoring breathing if they’re unconscious. Variations exist and trendier versions continue to be created, but the bold “CHOKING” title, human figure illustrations depicting abdominal thrusts, and step-by-step instructions are common (both examples above are from the NYC Department of Health, 1997 and 2010?). However, as with the disaster preparedness guide, there is often no time to stop and read the poster when someone is actually choking — one must act immediately — so the format isn’t optimal for the situation. Poster placement also presents a problem. It might blend into the scenery because of its ubiquity and fail to be noticed. It might also contrast with the decor and ambiance of a restaurant or there might not be suitable wall space allowing full visibility to all patrons and staff, so it could easily get hidden in a corner somewhere. (Side note: Movies and TV shows have used the “Heimlich maneuver” as a dramatic or comic device and have, to a large degree, popularized the technique, but even so, it’s hard to tell if the actors in those situations are correctly and safely modeling the procedure for their viewers. And even if one knows how to perform abdominal thrusts the right way, there’s a risk that it might not work.)

Airline Safety Cards

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One of the most popular examples of information design, the airline safety card is a study in wordless communication across cultural and geographic boundaries. Airplanes may vary in configuration and safety features, but the general instructions for exiting, making emergency landings, and using life preservation equipment are standard on the cards (shown above are panels from the American Airlines Boeing 737-800 Safety Instructions Card, 2012). Despite design and illustration quality improvements over the years, the cards are easy to ignore in the front seat pocket and the potential for misunderstanding still exists, which is why many airlines use live and video demonstrations that interrupt in-flight entertainment to get passengers’ attention and walk through key instructions. Still, given these best efforts, there are people who tune out as soon as they settle into their seat and skip the safety briefing. Whether these people are frequent travelers who can recite the instructions backwards or disaster skeptics who believe “it can’t happen here,” it’s hard to tell, and often, airline crew don’t attempt to make the distinction. (This article from Flight Safety Australia does an excellent job of breaking down passenger safety communication challenges.)

Maximizing the positive human impact of information design requires a proportion shift in how we usually approach information design for safety and emergencies: less focus on information and design, and much more on psychology. Knowing the inter-related mechanics of visual perception, cognition, and design is absolutely essential to presenting information effectively, but this knowledge doesn’t account for how people think, feel, and behave when presented with that information. People make decisions based on attitudes, beliefs, feelings, biases, and a host of other factors. Information designers need to engage their audience with sensitivity and respect in order to uncover those drivers and motivations, especially when it comes to self-preservation. Sometimes, what people share makes rational sense, but occasionally, it defies reason. In both cases, it’s up to information designers to extract the insights that provide clues to the solution.

Poor Mr. Truman may have seemed like a pigheaded old man who foolishly ignored the facts around him. But when you consider more carefully the man and his experiences, the picture becomes a little clearer: He was a war veteran. He was married three times. His wife died three years earlier. He lived 52 years at the lodge he built. He drank often. He was 83. After watching videos about him and hearing him speak about the situation, it became obvious to me that this was a man who was more terrified of surrendering his independence and becoming detached from all that he cared about than losing his own life. He lived his own way in a self-made paradise (turned decrepit museum) and he would be content nowhere else. Period. Of course he was aware of the danger, and deep down he probably knew what his decision would cost him, but it was his decision to make and no one else’s. To have forcefully removed him against his will would have been to end his life right there on the spot.

We need to do our best to unpack the irrational and surface what’s really driving someone’s behavior, whether it’s fear, lack of knowledge, overconfidence, or some past experience that exerts a strong influence on the present. With that understanding, it can become easier to develop human-centered strategies to encourage precaution, such as positive peer pressure from friends and family, normalization and mainstreaming of safety-conscious habits, incentives for taking safety precautions, end-to-end first aid and safety education programs spanning childhood to adulthood, and many others. A holistic, understanding-based approach could transform the topic of safety from something dreadfully tedious or irrelevant to a non-negotiable aspect of everyday life.

We’ll always need help to keep ourselves safe, whether we realize it or not, but we shouldn’t feel intimidated, bullied, or simply put off by the systems we create to ensure safety. Maybe in some distant future, the voice of information design in moments of crisis would be less one of authority and control, and more of empathy and compassion. And we’ll listen, because we’ll know what’s good for us.


What Does Design Want to Be?

December 3, 2015

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About four years ago, I railed against the state of design at the time. As a practicing designer, it deeply troubled me that the design world had become so self-absorbed that it lost touch with reality. News articles and blogs were celebrating design for the beautiful, delightful products that it brought into the world, and praising the rockstar designers whose sheer creativity produced such marvelous creations. We didn’t need more voices singing the praises of “good” design, only to fuel consumer appetites for Apple, IKEA, and Target merchandise. We needed more designers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with problems people face every day, like getting access to quality health care, affordable housing, clean water, and secure food supply. Sure, there were designers doing noble, respectable work then, as there always are, but how could anyone cut through the noise to see the good among the not-so-good? How could anyone understand the value of design in responding to real needs, not simply commercial interests?

Today, little has changed. Awareness of design is growing rapidly, thanks to the glut of marketing hype about design still clogging up magazines, news sites, and blogs, but it remains as daunting as ever to separate the wheat from the chaff or know which is which. Designers still design artifacts and experiences and apps (so many apps!), but more are aspiring to change the world, albeit with an incomplete skill set (on a related note, see Don Norman’s series of essays, starting with “Why Design Education Must Change”). Design process is being further decoupled from design craft and design expertise by way of design thinking, which has now falsely turned into an open-source cure-all for all of business’ and society’s woes — designers not required. Designers aren’t so much fighting for a seat at the strategy table any more as they are scrambling to keep up with a continuously changing market environment that’s wresting control of design from their very hands and putting the integrity of design into question. Either everyone at the strategy table has done some form of design thinking training by now and is plastering their boardroom with sticky notes, or they’re making designers an offer they can’t refuse: join us or be assimilated.

Let’s not forget the growing number of business, engineering, and other university programs that are tacking on design and/or design thinking to their curricula in order to better equip students to solve “wicked problems” (This is a grossly misused term, by the way; Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who introduced the term “wicked problems” in 1973, outlined ten criteria, some of which state that wicked problems are not truly solvable like “tame” problems due to their constantly changing and deeply complex nature.).

So yes, I’m still complaining. What continues to trouble me are the persistent disconnects between what we say about design, what design actually is, and what design and designers can realistically accomplish in the world. There’s a sizable gap between where the focus of attention currently is — the selling (and selling out) of design — and where, in my opinion, it needs to be – clarifying design’s role and aligning design activities and services to where they’re most needed (or at least, where they’re best suited).

To me, this is part of a larger problem that has only lately attracted attention: design has swelled over time to become too many different things for many different people. In the process of scaling up beyond “posters and toasters” and adopting methods from the social sciences, business, and creative problem solving along the way to tackle bigger challenges, design’s boundaries have started to lose definition. And without recognition of the growing body of knowledge at its core, design has no center of gravity to anchor it against misappropriation.

Design has long been evolving in tandem with social, cultural, technological, political, environmental, and economic changes across the world. Now it’s getting tangled up in all of them. For design to move forward (not backwards) through this current cycle of change, as its reach extends further into more dimensions of life and more participants enter the design space, it needs a system or framework for understanding it and engaging in it productively. Especially at this moment in time, design needs to be reframed, not as any one person or group wishes it to be, but as an inclusive synthesis-in-progress of diverse perspectives that are part of the new reality of design.

From this angle, more questions than answers emerge in the attempt to chart design’s new direction:

  • How do we communicate and demonstrate the value of design expertise in the emerging context of DIY design?
  • How do we encourage a dialogue that helps clarify the role of designers alongside all other participants in the full spectrum of design interventions?
  • How can designers stand up for design and lead the conversation about design while displaying some humility?

The assortment of perspectives below serves as more of a snapshot of thinking than a rigorous examination of the questions I pose. It’s a reflection of my current headspace as I sort through these issues in my own practice.


A 2013 New York Times article by Alice Rawsthorn briefly discusses the idea of “expanded” design, or design that “can be usefully applied outside its conventional context,” and acknowledges the risk of design becoming meaningless as it departs from the conventional notion of artifact creation to confront social and global challenges. She states:

The problem, or so the critics of expanded design claim, is that the proliferation of new approaches has made design seem even fuzzier and less coherent. They have a point. If the concept of expanded design is taken to its natural conclusion, just about any form of planned change can be described as having been designed, and design will not only become fuzzier still, but indistinguishable from common sense.

Does this matter? I’d argue not, at least not if identifying something as a design project will improve the outcome.

While Rawsthorn points out the potential pitfalls of making design a catch-all activity for a broad swath of human problem solving, the presumption that a “design” frame or lens can lead to a better end result requires more explanation. Why exactly is this design frame so beneficial? The article doesn’t make it entirely clear what exactly is inside design as opposed to non-design-based problem solving, aside from the “design process of research, analysis, visualization and communication,” that gives it value. Furthermore, what do design and designers bring to bear exactly on non-traditional design problems versus laypeople or “intuitive” designers, who’ve accomplished much on their own for so long? I’m sure many designers could easily answer that question, but the fact is that they haven’t been, or at least they’re not doing enough to communicate it widely enough.

In his 2015 book Design, When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini explores in-depth the changing nature of design for social innovation, and especially the relationship between “diffuse” design, performed by non-experts, and “expert” design, performed by trained professional designers. It is the interaction of those two roles together that greater possibilities and potential arises for social change, he claims. Following this logic, Manzini proposes what he calls a new “description,” not definition, of design:

Design is a culture and a practice concerning how things ought to be in order to attain desired functions and meanings. It takes place within open-ended co-design processes in which all the involved actors participate in different ways. It is based on a human capability that everyone can cultivate and which for some — the design experts — becomes a profession. The role of design experts is to trigger and support these open-ended co-design processes, using their design knowledge to conceive and enhance clear-cut, focused design initiatives.

Rather than draw a sharp line between expert and non-expert or judge the value of one over another, Manzini emphasizes the complementary roles of both in the co-creation of solutions. In this paradigm of co-designing, design experts are neither passive facilitators (who do what he calls “post-it design”) nor the sole creative visionaries (who do “big-ego design”), but as active participants in a shared process who “spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations, and help the process of convergence toward commonly recognized visions and outcomes.”

A missing piece today in achieving the vision Manzini sets forth is the development of new skills among designers who pursue this direction (rather than assume all designers should follow this path). He does detail various techniques and activities for supporting the co-design process, such as incorporating visual tools to prompt social conversations and creating physical spaces and infrastructure for collaborative work, but generally speaking, design education is not yet focused on building fundamental capabilities to equip designers with both traditional craft skills and creative collaboration skills together.

In the absence of fully-equipped next-generation designers or even an inkling of something like co-design, many non-designers are taking matters into their own hands and assuming the role of expert designer in an effort to create change in their respective domains, enabled by the plethora of toolkits, books, workshops, and other pre-packaged design knowledge commodities readily available today. It’s easy to criticize the peddlers of DIY design, the consumers of these offerings, and the casual “borrowers” of design practices to enliven their classrooms or workplaces for designers getting left behind. However, the fault lies primarily with the design institution: in the midst of fast-moving market forces and growing appetites for all-things-design, design has remained myopic, passively ceding ownership of itself, and lacking a strong foundation to stand upon. As Anne Burdick describes in her 2009 talk entitled “Design Without Designers”:

In the United States in particular, design’s rhetoric and self-definition has centered around its relevance to commerce. Design students are seldom taught to recognize or articulate their own unique expertise outside of their value to business. Our emphasis on design as a profession rather than as a discipline has left us without the scholarship that validates other fields. Our inability to advocate for design in larger terms excludes us from discipline-defining, knowledge-producing, and policy-generating activities, especially within research, education, and government.

Without acceptance as a bona fide discipline supported by research and literature, without regard for its legacy, without an evolving design education system oriented to human outcomes instead of outputs, and without designers serving as vocal proponents of design’s value across diverse contexts, design may very well lose whatever identity it has and become whatever anyone wants it to be.


Making and Meaning

October 20, 2015

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Like many other service professions, information design is typically defined by what the practitioner makes, how they make it, and what benefit comes from it. Invariably, the “making” part of information design work is what usually gets the most attention both within and outside of the field.

With steadily increasing awareness of information design as a real thing people do for a living — mainly through the infographics/dataviz craze explosion over the past decade or so — there’s been a greater interest in the art, science, and craft behind it. A whole industry of instructional guides, tutorials, workshops, and software packages has risen to meet popular demand for what are considered key information design skills and capabilities, not to mention a growing roster of university-level courses and programs devoted to some flavor of information design.

Gaining proficiency in the “how-to’s” of information design is absolutely essential to doing the work effectively, as is gaining hands-on experience through continued practice over many years and across different contexts and challenges. But there is much more to the work than the daily design-ship-bill cycle that puts a roof over one’s head and food on the table.

What’s lost amid the tactics-heavy discussions and pursuit of technical mastery is the other half of the story: deeper reflection on and exploration of meaning in information design — the “why” and broader context of the work that counterbalances the “what” and “how.”

“Meaning,” however, is a fuzzy word. To most, meaning comes from doing “meaningful work” that is personally rewarding or of some social or environmental significance. Without belittling their importance, these pursuits of meaning — the “feel good” and “do good” — only scratch the surface of what meaning means in information design.

Meaning is not the same as a goal or purpose for information design work. It’s not something one aims for or achieves. It is a process of extraction and synthesis of many different experiences and realizations that constantly evolves over the course of one’s career. It is a perpetual cycle of doing and thinking — deep immersion in the micro-scale day-to-day work and broader contemplation of the macro-scale big picture issues:

  • What is the short-term and long-term impact of what I do? How do I look beyond the final deliverable for a particular client, industry, or audience?
  • What habits have become ingrained in the way I work and the types of work I do? Am I too comfortable taking a certain type of project from a certain type of client because it’s easy/profitable/steady? Am I stagnating as a professional because I’m not diversifying my “diet” of projects?
  • How am I responding to large-scale shifts? What social, environmental, economic, technological, and cultural trends and cycles are influencing my clients’ and my audience’s behavior, as well as my own?

Reflection helps one see all the pieces created or collected over the course of a project or work experience, then synthesize all those fragments into a new learning or insight that can then feed back into the work. It is also a process of inquiry into the breadth and depth of information design, beyond what is familiar, established, or readily within arm’s (or cursor’s) reach:

  • Why does information design work? What makes certain practices, methods, techniques, and fundamental “rules” that I use so effective? Is there a recipe or formula for understanding?
  • What else is connected to information design that can enrich what I do? What other fields and bodies of knowledge, like psychology or education, can feed into my work and help me better understand what I do or don’t do?
  • What else is unconnected to information design that can help broaden my view of what I do? What other experiences will give me a fresh perspective on my work and challenge my biases and assumptions? How can I get out of my comfort zone?
  • Who else is behind information design? Are there other people I should know about or read up on besides the usual cast of characters (e.g., Tufte, Wurman, Snow, Minard, Playfair, Nightingale, etc.)?
  • What else can we do with information design? What areas would benefit most from information design that aren’t already? What are some wild ideas that push the boundaries of research and practice?

One big challenge, I think, is that the idea of engaging in an inner dialogue about meaning-making in information design is just that — an inner dialogue only, trapped inside one’s head or notebook and not more openly shared and encouraged within the information design community. In this age of snap judgment, sharing of any sort (online or offline) is as much an invitation to vicious criticism as it is to glowing praise. A lot of insightful thinking may never see the light of day for fear of public scrutiny, or it may never be taken seriously and drown in the social media stream. Nevertheless, the benefits of promoting less conventional and more expansive thinking on the very practice of shaping meaning and facilitating understanding far outweigh the potential risks. Communities of all kinds need fresh ideas and new ways of understanding themselves, supported by a culture of openness to change, in order to grow and flourish.

Information design has come a very long way just to be recognized, accepted, and even celebrated — just a bit — in the public eye. It has taken hard work by many well-known and completely unknown people to establish a foundation of theory, research, and practice upon which many careers have been built and continue to be built. Up to now, that has been the necessary trajectory for information design, a cumulative progression of mostly “making” and research into “making.”

What got us this far, however, is not enough to get us further. To keep information design (and designers) evolving and growing, we need to move the conversation past the familiar territory of do’s and don’ts and start asking more why’s and what ifs. We need to cultivate more mindfulness and awareness in practice to complement craft: high-level conceptualization, broad exploration, deep investigation, and individual introspection. Just imagine if every information designer took time out of their daily routine to sort through the day’s struggles, successes, dilemmas, questions, and inspirations, crystallize those lessons in some form, and put that knowledge to use. What would the future of information design look like then?


The Future of Design History

June 30, 2015

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The future is so now. Everywhere you turn, there’s some book, blog post, or conference about “THE FUTURE OF something-or-other” these days. The faster tech progress moves, the more impatient people become for the next new thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with envisioning the future and imagining possibilities for what could be. Meaningful progress depends on it. But there is something deeply wrong when we forget about everything that got us here or, worse yet, have no clue it ever even existed.

Recognizing the value of design history and truly learning from it is a loaded topic. It would take more than a lowly blog post to address topics such as the gaps in design history, the underuse of primary source material in education, and the false idolization of influential figures in design history. What interests me right now is the perception and role of design history in an internet- and social-media-driven world. Two interlinked forces are at work shaping design history — for better and worse:

  1. The design explosion: As the popularity of design increases (never mind which design we’re talking about) and the demand for designers and design skills grows (never mind specifics, again), what design is has evolved in response to these changes. More diverse voices outside of design are shaping and “curating” conversations about design, new players are redefining the landscapes of design education and practice, and new applications of design are gaining more recognition among the more traditional products and services. However, with so much activity around design, it becomes more challenging to make sense of design and find information about design history that is accurate and useful.
  2. The digital revolution: There’s no denying the speed and scale of change still happening from the analog-to-digital transition. Design continues to explode because more people know about it, interact with it, and practice it thanks to the unprecedented reach of the Web, the ways we can access it, and the number of places we can share and find information. The whole of design may seem no more than a Google search away on whatever device we want, but much design history still hasn’t migrated from boxes and shelves to digital files on servers and in databases. And what has migrated may be unreliable or incomplete.

Both forces combined have certainly elevated, broadened, and enriched design over the past twenty years or so, but they have also given rise to a growing trend toward “new” and “now.” In the Internet Age, design history is neither of those things. Instead, it is associated with words like “old,” “outdated,” “archaic,” among other unfavorable descriptors. It’s about people from, like, a hundred years ago doing lots of long, hard manual work without computers. And let’s not forget the stuffy old instructors who deliver bone-dry design history lectures and assign dreadfully long readings from super-heavy textbooks. For these reasons, it must be repackaged in the context of quick-fix social media and grabby blog posts and linkbait to become “new” and “now.”

One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery, particularly visual displays of information commonly labelled “infographics” culled from online library, museum, and archive collections, without the correct citation: it’s either missing, incomplete, or the source cited lacks the actual reference. Countless Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Facebook pages, tweets, and other forms of social sharing feature these images with little more than a trite “cool historic infoviz” or “[INFOGRAPHIC] Awesome Victorian data display” to accompany the posts. It may seem harmless, but the compounded reposting creates more distance between the original source and the place it was found (reverse image search is occasionally helpful, but no substitute for correct citation).

The widespread use of historical design imagery as visual fodder for personal mood boards and attention-seeking reduces the value of design history to clip art that can be freely redistributed across the web without regard for provenance or historical context. Works that are out of copyright or in the public domain aren’t necessarily fair game because there are no legal repercussions (as with music videos on YouTube). They are still someone’s creation and it’s worth stating who made them, when, where, and why, not just in the interest of good scholarship but in the interest of helping others learn more about that “cool” discovery.

An event I attended recently at the New York Public Library, Peripheral Landscapes: The Art of Maps, perfectly encapsulated the problem of design history stripped of meaning. The event featured three digital collages constructed entirely from cut-outs of “decorative and non-informational elements that reside along the edges of maps” that are part of the library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. The project was part of the library’s Net Artist in Residence program intended to make the most of their digitized historical collections and infuse them with a little more “new” and “now.” For most of the talk, the artist, Jenny Odell, spoke about her interests in online imagery and particularly Google Maps and Google Street View, and to be fair, most of the work she showed was conceptually interesting. When asked during Q&A if she documented the image sources she used, her response was a plain and simple “no.” Granted, much art contains allusions to its influences but doesn’t often state them directly. In this case, a library-sponsored art project using its own historical map collection to boost public awareness and use, attribution was surprisingly not a requirement — nor an obligation on the artist’s part — if only for the sake of helping viewers identify where the “non-informational element” came from and encouraging them to dig deeper into the map collection.

Making the effort to preserve links to the past across the analog-digital divide is critical to design history’s survival. In the absence of web citation police or a definitive, comprehensive online source of design history across all design fields, the responsibility belongs to everyone to correctly cite historical design imagery they post with the original source and not some derivative source or a linkrot-vulnerable URL. Even if it means doing a bit more homework beyond a Google search.


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