Does Information Design Make Sense?

June 14, 2010

infodesign2

This is my perception of information design from when I first got into it up until the present day.

This is unofficially the age of information design. Visualization is in vogue. Information is suddenly beautiful. Data is free flowing, ready to be poured, molded, sculpted, and remixed at will. Displays of facts and figures are everywhere, from newspapers to magazines, websites to television, public spaces to the palm of one’s hand.

But amid this frenzy of info-obsession, a fundamental clarity is sorely lacking. For a field centered on demystifying, clarifying, and explaining the complex, information design has a lot of explaining to do for itself. Does anyone really understand what information design is or isn’t given the state of affairs today? Is it possible to achieve a holistic, unified view of the field — from academia to professional practice to the public sphere?

Context

Before diving into the issue, let me provide some context. I live and breathe information design, practicing daily and surveying constantly. I’ve done so for the past twelve years, beginning with an undergraduate thesis specifically focused on information design. In raising these issues here, I am sharing a point of view informed by my experience as an information designer and opening up a broader conversation on this topic — deliberately leaving loose ends untied for the sake of further exploration.

It is also important to note that the field of information design has been continually evolving and growing over time, thanks to work of individuals and organizations who have sought to give it form and meaning. The concerns I list are less criticisms of any efforts to bring clarity than reflections on the confusion that exists today, brought about by the enthusiastic over-production of “info-stuff” and the underdeveloped efforts to synthesize and crystallize real knowledge that advances the field.

For the sake of this post, I am using the term “information design” to refer to the broad spectrum of work that deals with making all types of content and data understandable and usable by people — regardless of the specific tools or technology involved. There is a strong graphic element to information design, but I wouldn’t limit it to the only element. Ambiguous language and varying definitions are central to the confusion that surrounds this subject — and have been for some time — so I recognize that my own use of the term may draw criticism.

Here are my top five observations:

1. There is yet no single, widely-accepted definition of information design.

Wikipedia presently offers this definition:

“…the skill and practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Where the data is complex or unstructured, a visual representation can express its meaning more clearly to the viewer.”

The International Institute for Information Design, perhaps the closest thing to a professional organization for information design (and to which I belong) defines “information” and “design” separately, then presents a single definition:

“…the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments in which it is presented, with the intention to satisfy the information needs of the intended recipients…”

The front page of the InfoDesign discussion forum (whose archives date back to 1997)  defines it as:

“…the art and the science of presenting information so that it is understandable and easy to use: effective, efficient and attractive.”

Each of these definitions provides a window into a broader, though still incomplete understanding. It isn’t fully apparent what is considered information or by what skills or means one makes information understandable? Of course, a more exhaustive survey of definitions and descriptions could certainly raise more questions than answers (particularly in the realm of graphic design), but suffice it to say that clarity is still needed.

Looking more closely, information design has long escaped easy definition for numerous reasons. There is debate over whether it is an off-shoot of graphic design, a distinct field unto itself, or a hybrid of many different fields united by a shared purpose. Hand-in-hand with this debate is the question of information design’s history and origins; some think it began with the cave drawings, others think it was a 20th century phenomenon, and yet others place its beginnings somewhere in the Renaissance. Can there ever be a truly far-reaching history of information design?

2. There are no clear professional boundaries around information design.

What was once an unrecognized field with relatively anonymous and unwitting practitioners is now a diverse constellation of fields brimming with their respective experts, gurus, and evangelists. As the picture grows more crowded, the interrelationship of players becomes more fuzzy. What hierarchies and connections exist among the more popularized realms of practice?:

  • Data Visualization
  • Infographic Design/Illustration
  • Visual Thinking
  • Information Architecture

Where do other closely-related fields fit in?:

  • Library and Information Science
  • Technical Writing
  • Environmental Graphic Design
  • Cartography
  • Instructional Design

Answers to these questions are as elusive as the aforementioned definition and origin. Still, there are several consequences of this lack of boundaries and disconnection, ranging from poor public understanding of information design as an actual profession to marketplace confusion over what qualifies as an “information design problem” and who is skilled enough to tackle it. To that last point alone, no professional standards exist for what information designers do nor is there clear recognition or delineation of agencies doing information design work. Every practitioner and agency paves their own way by the types of challenges they tackle, services they offer, processes and methodologies they follow, and deliverables they produce.

3. More emphasis is on execution and visual appeal than analysis.

Armed with an array of sophisticated tools, today’s visualization professionals can readily gather raw content and produce a multitude of views showing as many diverse perspectives as graphic treatments. But the real usefulness of many of these outputs is questionable, as function takes a back seat to form and process yields to product.

Designers (professional and otherwise) take much creative license with content when creating works of information design, making it more beautiful than functional, presumably for the sake of public appeal. Examples of this abound. For instance, GOOD magazine has done a noteworthy job of incorporating information design in clarifying social, political, and environmental issues, but I often cringe at what gets published in the Transparency section. So much rich data, yet so few skillful or insightful visualizations. Would we have such a proliferation of information design artifacts if tools and technology weren’t so readily available — and if more time and mental energy were invested in the content?

4. It’s hard to find places to study information design.

It’s no surprise that the present confusion and lack of clarity within and around information design would pose challenges for those pursuing a formal education in that area. Only a handful of colleges and universities offer any degree programs in information design: Carnegie Mellon, Bentley University and The University of Reading (UK) notably number among them, yet even these programs vary in what is taught or not taught. Some schools fold in a course or perhaps just an assignment or two within a traditional graphic design curriculum. Others assist students in pursuing independent studies and tailoring their courses to suit their interest. As I write this, I don’t know for certain how many programs actually fall under these categories, but I’m sure a listing of those schools would benefit many aspiring information designers.

5. It’s hard to find quality resources dedicated to information design.

There’s a lot of stuff out there about information design. The problem is separating the good from the not so good. Books abound on numerous facets of information design, but in my experience, only a handful yield any lasting benefit. (I have to write a post just on books some time.) Some websites aggregate related content, creating a highly selective view depending on what is most popular, visually attractive or novel. Other sites, like Information Aesthetics and Visual Complexity provide a good current survey of projects and developments in data visualization, but there is little by way of critical thinking or deep analysis. Flowing Data is another great blog featuring data displays and infographics, with the occasional analysis. Edward Tufte’s site falls on the other end of the spectrum, with plenty of discussion and exploration of information design topics, but mainly at the tactical level of data display techniques. Most other sites I’ve seen either dive deep into the technical side of tools and techniques or collect and republish information design examples.

Conclusion

The need for information design has always been high, but I find that too often the ability of the profession to meet that need effectively falls short. There is no shortage of opportunities for information designers to make a difference in the world and to ultimately help solve some of the biggest challenges facing this planet. Without a unified understanding of what the profession is and does, the full potential of information design’s role in society could be diminished, a casualty of fragmentation and misrepresentation.


The Mind of the Seeker

February 7, 2010

galacticmandala

M74 Spiral Galaxy photo by Simon Dye (Cardiff University) overlaid with Shri Yantra Mandala.

Humanity’s search for knowledge, in its many forms, has always fascinated me. Spanning geographies, cultures, faiths, and generations, the enduring pursuit of truth and insight into the diverse realms of human experience has yielded some of the greatest works of science and art — from the sequencing of the human genome to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Each school of thought or path of study carries its own distinct challenges, “great questions” and intellectual rewards, but it is the same mind that is driven to find answers.

Several months ago, I had read a New York Times article about Carl Jung’s Red Book, a hauntingly personal collection of writings and paintings exploring the depths of his unconscious. Despite the little knowledge I have of Jung’s work (I admit), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see this long-lost treasure up close at the Rubin Museum of Art. When I finally made it to the museum over Christmas vacation, I decided to start at the top floor and take a quick walk through the other exhibits first, saving the “best” for last on the bottom floor (surely, I thought, some trippy mandala paintings and multi-limbed Hindu deity sculptures couldn’t hold my attention for very long, fascinating though they may be).

I was quickly proven wrong.

Almost every exhibit blew me away, but one resonated with me the strongest: “Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe,” up until May 10, 2010. Here’s a Flickr photo set of the exhibit.

While perspectives shifted greatly from spiritual to conjectural to empirical, the quality of execution and level of diligence in constructing coherent visual narratives were remarkably on par across all works. Metaphor and symbolism were as vital as brush and ink in depicting Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies; the artists behind these works employed the tools of design to depict the interrelationships between physical and ethereal planes with such compelling clarity as to affirm their reality. Turning to the early Western astronomers, meticulous drawings of their observations with the naked eye and with simple telescopes helped demystify the heavens and bring humankind’s grasp of the world beyond Earth within reach, religious controversy aside.

Rounding out the survey of astronomical study was a series of typically dazzling photographs of distant nebulae and galaxies marking our present level of achievement. A projected Powers of 10-style video of The Known Universe flaunted the astonishing accuracy with which we now claim to know the universe and our place in it. On the same wall as the projection but directly above was a giant mandala painting (part of the exhibit “Mandala: The Perfect Circle”). I don’t know if the juxtaposition on the same wall was intentional, but graphically and thematically, the two images made perfect sense together.

Reflecting back on that day, I realized that it is the same quest for knowing that links the devotional artist, the scientist, and the modern information designer. The content, the context, and the methods may be different, but all of these individuals share the same purpose: to model reality — be it physical, spiritual, or otherwise — for human understanding and enlightenment. (Even Jung, in working through his inner turmoil, used art and writing to make sense of what he experienced. Psychological information design?)

Today, the skill of modeling reality has been professionalized into many discrete roles, including information designer, infographic illustrator, data visualization expert, CG artist, et cetera. Technology continues to enhance our understanding of the world and expand the means by which we can communicate. Slowly, what our brains actually do is still evolving: how we perceive what is and conceive of what could be, as well as how we construct understanding. I wonder what a “Visions of the Cosmos” exhibit might look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now. What new models will we create? What new understanding will we reach? What will our universe look like then? Will it still be a “universe”?

(Along the lines of how we know what we know, the Rubin Museum of Art is running a pretty amazing event series called Brainwave 2010. I wish I could attend every session!)


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