10 Challenges Facing Information Design Today

March 2, 2012

When I first set foot on my path as an information designer, I never thought the field would explode in popularity as it has today. Where there was once a drought of information and resources on the subject, there is now a flood of content overtaking the landscape of information design. But this surge of interest has come at a price.

As I wrote back in June of 2010, information design — broadly speaking — does not make sense. In the time since I wrote that article, little has changed. To some, there is no problem at all with the state of information design today (if they even recognize that there is a “state of information design”). Instead, it’s an open playing field, a new frontier where anyone and everyone has the opportunity to participate, create, innovate, and capitalize on whatever they wish. The only real concern is how long the “infoviz” party will last. For others such as myself, what is really at stake is the integrity and future of the information design profession, but without clearly spelling out the main challenges that need to be addressed today, blazing the way forward will prove a very difficult task.

I have boiled down my observations of information design today to ten key challenges, with some overlap:

1. Overproduction

There is actually too much being published and broadcast under the guise of representing or explaining information design, and not enough being done to synthesize and illuminate. Books, news articles, blogs, videos, events, and other content outlets are delivering not just a higher volume of information but conflicting information as well (for instance, some say information design is fairly new, while others maintain it is actually not new and stretches back centuries, even millennia). This cacophony of signals makes it difficult for anyone — from the aspiring designer to the executive seeking information design help — to make heads or tails of it all.

2. Misunderstanding

As long as the language and concepts surrounding information design remain ambiguous and undefined, no progress can be made to advance the field forward. Origins of terms and practices, as well as relationships between different visualization disciplines need to be better understood and mapped. Nathan Yau touched on this issue in a September 2011 post on Flowing Data, but it surfaced little more than shared agreement that clarity is lacking (my comments appear here and here).

3. Undervalue

The value of information design as a means of addressing the growing scale and complexity of problems today is still not fully recognized. The thinking skills and frameworks involved in information design work can be applied to a host of challenges beyond more conventional, relatively well-defined projects such as website architectures, wayfinding systems, and data displays. If this potential for broader and more strategic application were realized, other challenges may be solved: “information designer” might well become an accepted role within companies, demand may drive more formalized programs of study, and the public perception of information design may be improved.

4. Fragmentation

No professional or academic boundary exists around the collective activities and disciplines that comprise information design. Whether or not there should even be an all-encompassing category is itself a controversial question. Nevertheless, without true solidarity amongst professionals or common ground on which to establish professional standards and build academic curricula, the information design space will remain a free-for-all and confusion will continue. Organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication and the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) have done much to build unity and community as well as advance dialogue, but much work still remains.

5. Scarcity

They may assume different job titles and offer different services, but collectively, skilled information design practitioners are few in number and remain largely outside of the spotlight. This shortage may be the result of a combination of factors, including lack of formalization of the profession, lack of training and programs of study, and even self-misidentification (that is, people who do information design but whose job title or responsibilities position them differently). If there is no clear delineation and sufficient recognition of the profession, it may never flourish.

6. Amnesia

Lack of memory is hurting the legacy of information design. In the absence of an actual, formal history, relative newcomers tend to jump off from the most recent and most popularized figures like Richard Saul Wurman or even Ben Fry, while the forefathers and foremothers (Joseph Priestly, Florence Nightingale, and Herbert Bayer to name a few) end up marginalized or forgotten altogether. A deeper appreciation of information design’s roots might inform how to tackle the challenges of the present and help lay the groundwork for the future.

7. Misappropriation

Marketing infographics are everywhere these days, serving as far-too-convenient traffic magnets for virtually every kind of website. Instead of creating genuine value for their audience, marketing infographics employ all available graphic devices to lure attention under the pretense of credibility. Proponents of marketing infographics tout expertise in the area of infographic design or even prescribe do’s and don’ts while side-stepping an entire swath of history and professional practice dedicated to advancing that very work. And while the debate against this phenomenon hovers at the level of execution and form versus function, the bigger, untouched issue here is the preservation of the central purpose of information design: to help people make sense of their world. Unfortunately, the marketing infographic gold rush is far from over, but a responsibility must exist among information designers to stand up for their profession.

8. Commercialization

For several years now, the infoviz/dataviz trend has become infused in popular culture; the influence of the information design aesthetic is everywhere, from movie sequences to music videos to art exhibits. Although the intent is often tongue-in-cheek, and may even indirectly promote information design, there is still a risk of diluting, muddling, or flat-out mocking a field that has yet to really define and take ownership of itself. News features and special issues on information design are becoming more common, particularly in the graphic design world, but the tendency is towards visual appeal and surface-level scans over deep investigation (examples include Grafik magazine’s April 2010 issue, Eye Magazine’s Winter 2010 issue, and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog posts on infographics). Public interaction with information design should not be limited to superficial treatments. News outlets such as the New York Times are making an effort to dig deeper into information design and even set best practices with their infographics, but a greater counterbalance of instructive resources and knowledge is still needed. (Academic-level publications on information design do exist, such as the Information Design Journal and the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping, although there is little crossover of insight into more mainstream channels).

9. Commodification

Despite their inherent usefulness, tools and technology have exerted too strong an influence on information design. The speed of production and limitless palette of stylistic options afforded by current software overshadow the time-intensive work of research, analysis, sketching and iteration. Mastery of Photoshop and Illustrator does not translate to information design skill, but from a business perspective, amateurism may potentially reshape the marketplace of design services. Process — and skill — should precede product, not the other way around.

10. De-humanization

Information design has become too closely associated with the production of design artifacts and less with human outcomes. At its core, information design is about bridging gaps in understanding and enabling sound decision-making and action. The information designer’s job is to achieve those ends in the most effective way possible, or as Edward Tufte states in this excellent presentation, using “whatever it takes.” Short of being present with someone at the point of need, a designer must push his or her skills as far as necessary to ensure that a concept is clearly understood, a task is accomplished, or a goal is achieved. Solutions may be designed on the computer, but they originate from understanding people.

There are probably more challenges than I’ve identified here, but I hope the message is clear. A critical look at the big picture of information design has been missing for too long. It’s time for information design to make sense of itself from the inside out. If more professionals, academics, businesses and others in this space invested collective effort to fix the present, a promising future may be possible.

 


8 Comments »

  1. Excellent essay, Michael. Thanks for bringing all the aspects together into a coherent picture (so to speak).

    Comment by CW Campbell — March 4, 2012 @ 9:55 pm
  2. I really like what you have to say! I am in the ‘Information Design has always been here and can apply to so many things’ camp but have trouble articulating it. Here’s my poor attempt: http://www.simplyunderstand.com/2012/02/what-is-information-design/

    Comment by Corinne — March 7, 2012 @ 8:51 am
  3. CW: Thanks for the comment!

    Corinne: Glad we’re in the same camp, and glad to see your post. Sometimes the act of defining a problem or understanding an issue can be just as hard as solving it, but the effort pays off in the end. Keep at it!

    Comment by Michael — March 7, 2012 @ 1:22 pm
  4. Great post, Michael. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic.

    Comment by Ross Crooks — August 28, 2012 @ 12:29 am
  5. I must, however, disagree with some of your thoughts in the “Misappropriation” section. First, you imply that using graphic devices to appeal to an audience is mutually exclusive with providing value. Surely, as an information designer, you see the value of aesthetics in the practice. Whether or not those graphic devices are appealing to you or appropriate for the setting is merely a consideration of context and preference.

    Second, your reference to the “pretense of credibility” assumes that the sources used in graphics used in marketing efforts are not reputable, or the information included is inaccurate. This is clearly a sweeping and invalid assumption. Information graphics, no matter the application, are capable of containing accurate, relevant and well-organized information that provides value to a viewer.

    Finally, I agree with your statement that the purpose of infographics is to help people make sense of their world. I would also argue that a graphic explaining how a product or service works would fall within this description, so long as it is accurate and helpful. Should a graphic format never be used to explain such things? Of course it should. Should it be analyzed in the same way as a graphic with a scientific purpose? Of course not. This would be like comparing an advertisement to a documentary.

    It seems that your opposition to the use of infographics in marketing is really one of labels. To draw a parallel to the previous analogy – saying that infographics shouldn’t be used in marketing is like saying that video should not be used for advertising.

    Are there a lot of infographics out there that are complete garbage? Absolutely. There is also a lot I don’t care to watch on YouTube.

    Comment by Ross Crooks — August 28, 2012 @ 11:01 pm
  6. Ross: Thanks for the comments (and nice double take).

    I realize that my survey of the ten challenges is quite brief; each section could easily cover more ground and provide more depth. Nevertheless, I think your remarks are (mis)reading between the lines and incorrectly reframing the issues involved.

    Point one: The misappropriation issue is fundamentally about purpose. Marketing infographics primarily exist to sell by attracting attention. Informing is a secondary aim. How they achieve this is by leveraging a heavy amount of graphic design (styling) to artificially enhance a “boring” visual depiction of content/data. If there’s a balance of form and function, marketing infographics largely ignore it. As for value, let’s be honest. “Consumers” of marketing infographics are typically getting as much value as consumers of fast food and candy bars — fleeting gratification and empty calories, or sometimes nothing at all. Real value in the marketing infographics paradigm is *extracted* from consumers, not delivered to them. (Admittedly, my definition and description of marketing infographics isn’t very charitable…)

    Point two: Please re-read the sentence for context. The “pretense of credibility” refers to the visual rhetoric of infographics and how appearances communicate as much as or more than content. Data quality is a separate issue entirely. Marketing infographics capitalize on the perceived analytic rigor and integrity of information design by employing methods such as data display conventions (bars, pies, line graphs), diagrams, visual comparisons, etc. They look informative and authoritative when they really might not be. Whether or not there even is any analytic rigor and integrity is left to the time- and attention-starved reader to determine.

    (I have to lighten the tone a bit and refer to Dave Chappelle’s standup routine on misrepresentation, NSFW: http://youtu.be/2OBPaenkxdg?t=1m10s )

    Point three: You misquoted me, but the intent is the same for infographics as for the whole of information design. I’m not at all against explaining how a product or service works in an infographic, so I find your argument and analogies puzzling. Information design as a benefit to business and society has countless applications far beyond infographics, and many have yet to be realized. What I am squarely against is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” phenomenon — appropriating the reputation and methods of information design in the service of purely commercial interests, all the while ignoring its living and historical legacy.

    To sum up, there’s little I can single-handedly say or do to change what’s already in motion, or to change anyone’s mind. The best I can do is express and defend a point of view that I feel strongly about and keep striving for clarity in a space that is so desperately in need of it. Inevitably, toes will be stepped on. But, if I can provoke thoughtful discussion and even have my own beliefs and biases challenged, all the better.

    Comment by Michael — August 29, 2012 @ 4:37 pm
  7. Thank you so much for this post, I am currently a graphic design student in my third year wishing to specialise in information design. I am working on a self directed project that will be looking at the merging relationship between information design and information graphics.

    I think that you raise some really valid points especially regarding the future of information design.

    Comment by Liz — January 9, 2013 @ 3:33 pm
  8. Thanks for your comment, Liz. I’m glad that you’re starting down the path of an information designer. Your self-directed project reminds me of my own experience in college. There were no formal information design programs at the time, so when I discovered information design, the only way to dig deeper was to undertake projects within an art/graphic design major.

    I’m curious to know where you see the disconnect between information design and information graphics, or what exactly that “merging relationship” actually is. I actually think information design is the broader realm of practice which covers a range of outputs, including infographics. If you could share your process or the final result when complete, I’d love to see it.

    Comment by Michael — January 21, 2013 @ 10:50 am

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