Year: 2013


The Real Meaning of Information Design


We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


The Headlamp


One year ago, Hurricane Sandy swept through the northeast, bringing strong winds, rain, and a powerful storm surge that sent water levels higher than any in recent memory in the NY-NJ area. I never thought that a once safe neighborhood (my neighborhood) could transform into a disaster area overnight. But feelings of loss and vulnerability gave way to determination to undo the damage, to return to normal. As soon as the floodwaters had receded, it was time to begin the long, hard work of cleanup and reconstruction, which still remains unfinished in many parts even today.

Thinking back on my experience after the flood, I am grateful for all the things that helped me get through it all. Family, friends, neighbors and aid volunteers provided support and basic necessities like a place to stay, a hot meal, and occasional power from a portable generator to charge my phone and stay connected to the outside world (which had felt more distant than ever). The mostly mild weather and being physically capable of working made a huge difference as well. But there is one thing that I am especially glad I had during the “darkest” period post-Sandy: my Energizer headlamp.

I remember buying it several years ago, after using a friend’s extra head lamp during a camping and hiking trip in New Hampshire. I was astonished that such a simple invention — an LED flashlight with a headband — could be so invaluable, and so much more useful than an ordinary handheld flashlight in situations where activities needed to be done in the dark. At about $14 and powered by three AAA batteries, the headlamp seemed a worthwhile addition to my collection of tools and safety supplies. The multiple brightness settings and tilt-able lamp seemed handy at the time, but I had no idea how useful they would be until the need arose.

For six days after the hurricane waters receded, my entire neighborhood was without power. My daily “work” routine was to wake at dawn, walk home from a nearby relative’s house where I was staying, and haul out bag after bag of wet garbage until just before dusk. The only light available to me came through small windows and was barely enough to work with, so my headlamp had to provide enough illumination to see what I was doing. At night, my headlamp would guide me along my walk back and even through the house when candles weren’t enough. Amazingly, with so much constant use, not once did the light grow dim, nor did the batteries need changing.

Much has improved since that time, and I am glad to finally be back to normal — a little wiser and a little more cautious, for sure. Getting here today was the result of many efforts working together. It took the help of federal and local agencies along with charities like the American Red Cross to coordinate the large-scale relief effort and mobilize volunteers and aid right after the storm. It also took the work of local sanitation workers and repair crews to clear away damaged material and rebuild (hopefully) better and safer. On a personal level, it took persistence, physical and mental energy, and the help of something as simple as a headlamp to climb out of the darkness.


Public Space


Sometimes thoughts need the right space to happen, the right space to live in. We may choose to distance ourselves from one dimension of our reality to experience another, to have new ideas or gain perspective. At other times, life decides which side of reality we must confront, and so our thinking conforms (or resists).

In this moment, I am writing from Washington Square Park. My thoughts are in many places — work, home, past, future — but right now, I’m immersed in the ecosystem of the park. The weather is pleasant, the heat of summer mellowed to a comfortable level — and a signal that fall may not be far. NYU students are back from summer break, or just starting their college experience. Old friends are reconnecting, new friendships are forming. Technology is everywhere: students smiling at text messages, calling family back home, or working deadpan on their laptops, tourists shooting photos or videos of the whole scene, and me, typing this into my iPhone. Jazz music, performed only by a sax player and drummer, sets the perfect backdrop to this afternoon confluence of people and place, a shared sequence of moments in a small but timeless patch of NYC.

One moment, hidden among so many parallel realities, struck me this afternoon. As I finished my lunch, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a furry caterpillar begin a perilous journey across a heavily-trafficked walking path leading to the fountain in the center of the park. I looked around and realized I was the only one watching him attempt to cross. Slowly he (or she?) inched forward, arching then flattening his fuzzy brown body. He barely made it three feet, out of the ten feet he needed to cover, before an unsuspecting student clipped his head with his bright white sneaker. In one final arching motion, the caterpillar’s journey ended, and all the while, the scene continued. Friends laughed, dogs walked beside their owners, a breeze flowed through the trees, and the jazz played on. It wasn’t long before he “blended” into the ground, flattened by the waves of footfalls up and down the path.

Life goes on, indeed, but it mustn’t go unnoticed. I don’t know the caterpillar’s greater purpose in the grand scheme of things, unless he was destined to become a butterfly and start a butterfly effect. Where did he come from? Where did he think he was going? Why did I just see that? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and looking for deeper meaning, but I can’t ignore the significance of that moment.

I come to this park, as I do other public places, to see my world differently — but really, I come to see the world. In fact, I always see many different worlds, macro and micro, overlapping, colliding, coexisting. In the space of a lunch break, in the space of a public park in NYC, many things can happen if you just tune into the worlds around you.


The Other Visualization


We often think of visualization in the most tangible sense of the word: an image or representation of thoughts, data, observed phenomena — something you can look at. Visualizations conventionally take the form of a print document or on-screen display, but they also occupy environments and increasingly live on devices. Much attention these days is focused on the creation of such visualizations to manage vast data sets and enable sophisticated scientific and mathematical analyses. Visualizations of this type help us understand (and perhaps believe we can control) our environment by giving us insight into the dynamics that measurement reveals — everything from the number and position of near-Earth objects to environmental conditions in New York City. We also use visualizations to understand our own behavior, from our physical fitness to our emotions. The skills needed to create visualizations are becoming more accessible, the tools more sophisticated, and the level of detail sharper and more granular. We keep finding new ways to collect data, new types of data to mine, and new ways to see our present world differently, but we’re losing sight of an innate capability to see and create much more than data could ever allow us to.

The other kind of visualization — one that we all practice but often take for granted — requires no special tools except imagination. It is creative visualization.

Some dismiss it as daydreaming or fantasizing, deriding its practice throughout life, but its every bit as valid and productive a visualization method as it’s more commonly accepted counterparts. Creative visualization is all about letting the mind roam free to explore whatever drifts in and out of conscious thought. It is the doorway to new ideas and new possibilities. It is a breeding ground for the absurd, the impractical, and the completely impossible, but it is also a necessary complement to the more structured forms of visualization.

Aside from giving the brain an outlet for bizarre flights of fancy, creative visualization serves a number of purposes. Brainstorming, or ideation, is probably the most familiar practical form of creative visualization, as it focuses the imagination on a specific task or problem to be solved in order to generate many different solutions or possibilities (of course, brainstorming can be verbal as well as visual). Generally speaking, most brainstorming tends to hover around what is pragmatic and easy to execute; even when the activity is at its most fluid, the fundamental encouragement of wild ideas and transformation of ordinary ideas into extraordinary ones (per Alex Osborn’s original intent) tends to go unheeded. For those seeking to “innovate,” the generation of fresh and original thought often gets stifled by premature criteria: cost, time to market, degree of impact, etc. The full potential of visualization as an innovation tool is often lost because “how you get there” overshadows any open exploration of what “there” could even look like.

In the realm of strategy consulting, visioning exercises are a powerful enabler of change for teams, organizations, communities, and society. A step beyond brainstorming specific tactical solutions, they involve understanding a present reality fully and deeply, perhaps through research and data analysis, in order to envision an ideal future where strategic challenges and opportunities of the present are resolved. Such “visions” might include expanding into new markets, launching new products, reorganizing departments, or re-establishing an organizational vision and entire strategic direction. This activity calls upon different stakeholders to collectively build the reality they want to achieve together (and define their time horizon) by building upon and enriching each other’s ideas. Ideally, such future visioning involves a clear vision or over-arching purpose, uninhibited idea flow, diverse sources of input, and skilled visual facilitation to orchestrate, synthesize and refine the group’s thoughts into a clear and actionable picture of tomorrow.

There is yet another kind of creative visualization that gets very little attention, and perhaps draws the most skepticism: the ability to vividly construct an image or entire experience in the mind and have it manifest in reality.

Closely tied to the New Thought movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, and later re-emerging in the New Age phenomenon of the 1960’s–1980’s, creative visualization of this type relies on the full power of the imagination to effectively “create” personal change by tapping into a force beyond rational understanding or present scientific knowledge. The law of attraction, a core principle of New Thought stating that positive thinking attracts positive outcomes (and negative attracts negative), works in tandem with creative visualization: the stronger the image, the associated feelings, and the intent, the greater likelihood that it will come to be. Some who have written and spoken on the subject, like Neville Goddard, Wallace Wattles, and James Lynn Page, refer to the unseen mechanism of manifestation as a spiritual or cosmic energy (often associated with God), while others like Adelaide Bry, author of Visualization: Directing the Movies of Your Mind suggest the force is within the individual — a largely mysterious but consistently reproducible “mind over matter” phenomenon. In his book Thinking Visually, visual thinking pioneer Robert McKim briefly explores how to cultivate imagination and enrich foresight to achieve future goals by introducing Maxwell Maltz’s psycho-cybernetics technique. So, for example, if you want a bigger house, you must see and feel the future state vividly in your mind: walk through the front door, see tall ceilings and bright sunlight pouring through the windows, feel content that you are living in the house you want. With repeated practice of this technique, the general principle holds that it will happen in real life — maybe not down to the exact details, but it will happen. As for proof that this method works, individual experience is usually the testing ground. Scientific studies seem scarce save for one involving Russian Olympic athletes (the source is unidentified).

Visualization — making things visual in physical or mental form — applies to numbers, words, ideas, and even hopes and desires. While some forms of visualization focus on understanding the present and are rooted in empirical observation, they’re only half of the visualization story.  The more subjective, and some would say the more compelling side, is about envisioning and creating the future, whether by our own direct efforts, through group collaboration, or by means beyond our total comprehension. There may be more science anchoring conventional visualization methods and more pragmatism to focusing imagination on generating “real” solutions, but we should also be open to the potential of creative visualization in its different forms to help us solve problems and improve our lives.


Advancing the Human Journey


The concept of the journey spans cultures and traditions around the world. Journeys form the core of ancient and modern narratives, from the hero’s quest to the experience of life from birth to death. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the connection between the philosophical and functional aspects of the journey construct, and where a new understanding of the past and present might be possible. How might we build upon and extend the notion of the journey as a narrative framework for self development and growth within the context of information design and sensemaking? Going further, how might we expand the notion of information design to advance human potential?

The seed idea for this post came from an article in The New Inquiry titled Playing Outside, which discusses the strained evolution of video games as an art form and as a means of social change. What immediately caught my interest was a reference to a game called Journey:

an indie game based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the sentimental concept of unvoiced collaboration with strangers.

They had me at “monomyth.” How did I not hear about this game when it launched in 2012? Finally, video games are growing up and exploring fresh new territory! The author digs into the problem and challenges the video game establishment later on:

The idea that at the end of the day, games are obligated to serve the purpose of “fun” above all others has been the main wrench in the works of the gaming industry’s machinations for legitimacy. Why should games be mature, cope with social issues, reflect society, or demonstrate the genuine artistic vision of a grown-up creator? At the end of the day, they’re just for fun, say gamers when they’ve run out of defenses against the mainstream industry’s embarrassing, stagnant homogeneity.

Why remain locked in a market-safe model that indulges teenage male power fantasies with graphic violence and vicarious conquests? Why not push the medium to it’s fullest potential and experiment with new forms of interaction and experience — possibly new modalities of learning and understanding?

My discovery led to a highly unproductive (but mentally stimulating) afternoon reading reviews, watching video after video of Journey gameplay and behind-the-scenes videos of thatgamecompany explaining their approach to making the game and their over-arching philosophy. Then I read the mission statement on their humble and un-flashy website:

Create timeless interactive entertainment that makes positive change to the human psyche worldwide.

What a paradigm shift, and what an exciting frontier to explore! I don’t own a PS3, but if thatgamecompany continues to live up to their mission and push the boundaries of “interactive entertainment,” I may be persuaded to get one.

What Journey does so elegantly is tap into human themes of discovery and self-attainment and elevate them beyond the ordinary and the everyday: epic, dreamy landscapes, semi-familiar cultural references and symbolism, magic as a creative and communicative element, and best of all, the sound effects and music, masterfully composed and performed. Every design decision, from the color palette to the character design to the sound effects, enriches the visual and emotional texture of the game and demonstrates exceptional craftsmanship.

In a way, the creators of Journey deliberately practiced anti-information design to make a more engaging, universal experience for any audience, regardless of language. The actual gameplay is driven by “learning by doing,” so most of the action is looking around and trying things out — play in its simplest form. The player-to-player interaction eliminates language barriers by drawing on universal social principles: shared ultimate goal/purpose, cooperation to achieve the goal, trust, etc. (Of course, without a mechanism for aggression or violence, players are left with fewer other choices in this utopian game scenario.)

Abstracting human experience to superhuman or meta-human level is not easy. The short behind-the-scenes videos hint at the tremendous intellectual, creative, and technical effort it took to create the unique world of Journey. When I look at the game from an information design perspective, I see elements that information design has been missing — or has been slowly maturing toward:

  • Multi-sensory methods to amplify understanding and meaning – We’re only starting to understand what “online” means for information design, and the push towards sophisticated programming languages and visualization software is only uncovering part of the picture. Video games, by virtue of all that technology under the hood, immerse us in dynamic visual worlds, and even transport us away from our own time-space reality. How might we push video and audio even further, and how do we employ our other senses — and feelings — to enable understanding?

  • Responsive and truly interactive experiences – The evolution from static to dynamic knowledge creation and transfer is still ongoing, yet there are opportunities to expand how we think about interaction and direct manipulation of information. What if visualizations moved beyond sliders, check boxes and toggles, and enabled fluid, intuitive exploration? How might we make information experiences less rigid and more responsive to enable instant feedback, physically and virtually?

  • Personal change and growth – Commercial information design serves an important function, by helping people navigate spaces, learn new concepts and skills, and do their everyday work. But we could be thinking more about how information design thinking can support individual development and sense-making throughout life. My biggest gripe about information design is the “so what?” factor. Popular information design, in the form of “infographics” (or decoratively illustrated lists of facts) and abstract data displays appeal to the eye and may enable some understanding, but what happens next? The metaphorical notions of “consumption” or even “digestion” seem to be the end state for information design these days, but if we carry the thinking further, are we metabolizing that information and is it fueling any action? How might we nourish the intellect and the individual, instead of just manufacturing visual confections and feeding appetites? How might we focus on outcomes instead of just outputs?

The more I reflect on this topic, the more I feel that information design should embrace a greater purpose. It continues to prove its value to businesses and organizations, but it can — it must — also benefit individuals and society as a whole in deeper and more engaging ways. But to accomplish that doesn’t require more content to be formatted and displayed or more data to be mined and filtered through analytic software and spit out onto slick futuristic interfaces. The “new” and widely untapped frontier that awaits information design is a refocus on maximizing human agency by enabling and expanding what people can be and do in their lives.

The journey that lies ahead for information design should not be guided solely by technology, market trends, or passing fancies. The journey should be grounded in what matters most to people and their lives — their struggles, their aspirations — and it should be guided by understanding, from within the realm of understanding-based professions and from without. Cooperation, collaboration, and a respect for the timeless, universal things that bind humanity will help guide the way forward.


Wayfinding Through the Visualization Space

Photo by chriscom on Flickr

A recent conversation with some fellow visualization folk led me to question my own notion of what the visualization space should look like and how it should get there.

Information design, as a visualization profession, is more than just how I earn a living. For me, it’s a deeply-ingrained way of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes, that desire to make things understandable is driven by preference and bias rather than by pragmatism. I’ve long been attached to the pursuit of an ideal visualization space, complete with a clear foundational language, broader internal and external understanding of visualization and its benefits, more structured programs that holistically teach visualization, and a closer sense of community across the many disciplines and specialties within. It would be great to see that viz-utopia happen and help make it happen, but the fact is that this vision is wildly out of sync with reality. Simply wanting things to be a certain way and tackling all the obstacles in the way doesn’t change what is and likely will be: an ecosystem of many different and differing points of view, hubs of activity, professional interests, channels of information, and outputs loosely joined under the category of “visualization.”

Perhaps the real opportunity is less grandiose (and presumptuous) and more down-to-earth: consistently working towards incremental understanding as a general goal rather than becoming fixated on solving for the larger perceived “problem.” Shedding some sense-making responsibility for visualization isn’t necessarily a surrender to the chaos and complexity that seemingly threaten to consume it. A measure of detachment acknowledges that other productive efforts are happening organically and have the potential to generate enough signal to cut through the noise. In this sense, the visualization space will ultimately become what all of its participants make of it; each contribution exists for the others to respond to, share, build upon, or rethink entirely. And the varied roles active within that ecosystem will shape the dynamic and tenor of discourse: teachers and students, leaders and followers, innovators and optimizers, sense-makers and trouble-makers.

So maybe hard paved roads, guardrails, and traffic lights aren’t the real solution to traversing the rocky terrain of visualization, but at a minimum, some balance is needed — enough structure and practical/theoretical basis to give the space substance as well as enough openness to allow new thinking and innovation to occur.

To borrow from the hiking world, it might be a shared community effort that guides the way, much like the cairns that line mountain hiking trails.

Cairn built atop a boulder on a hiking trail in New Hampshire. Photo by Michael Tsai on Flickr.

These small mounds of rocks mark the safest path when weather obscures painted trail markers or when hazards are hard to see. The piles aren’t always part of the design of the trail, yet they elegantly blend with the natural landscape while clearly showing the way. The success of cairns depends on many hikers doing their part by building them where they’re needed, adding stones to make the pile higher, or rebuilding them when damaged by the elements. Similarly, if enough visualization practitioners (from data viz, visual thinking, information design, scientific viz, etc), researchers, and others create and build upon existing knowledge bases (such as blogs, discussion groups, courses, events, etc) and collectively raise awareness of genuinely useful resources that advance understanding, the “right” paths might emerge naturally in time.

Of course, in this revised vision, all possible paths are available — it only depends on the individual to make sense of the options and decide on the best path forward.