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.
Thanks for your post. Maybe it’s only normal that more design information of lower value emerges as the field becomes more popular. It’s likely that most activities by the masses — cooking, driving, picture taking, singing, clothing, etc. — follows a pyramid shape: large amounts of bad at the bottom, very little grace at the top, and a gradation in between. I wouldn’t expect that it will return towards higher quality on average, but that different levels of quality will begin to emerge, with each provider trying to signal and differentiate its value.
Thanks for reading, Francis. I agree that there will always be a range of perspectives about information design, like any other topic. It’s easy to pass judgement on the good, bad, and truly awful contributions, but I’m trying to see the positive, constructive side. Rather than wag my finger at every piece of “beautiful information” that pops up, I use it as motivation to explain information design better, to draw attention to and interest in what I see as foundational issues in order to (hopefully) work towards a common ground. All of us in the information design/visualization space are responsible for shaping the pyramid you describe, so it’s up to each of us to find opportunities to clarify, educate, and build understanding at the top.
Well stated article. I’ve argued regularly that the first step in any visualization project, even a very small one, should be to define the goal, and from that to think of a set of questions that must be answered so as to achieve that goal, and finally to build visualizations that answer those questions.
Effectiveness, rather than prettiness, needs to be the criterion that we place top of the list of qualities we look for. Your article balances the wealth of posts that espouse “beautiful” or “cool” graphics. Even an infographic should be evaluated by how effectively it informs; after all, they are not named “prettigraphics” …
Absolutely, Graham, and great work with your Working Vis blog. There’s definitely been less focus (or even education/training) on the science and rigor behind information design work, whether it’s focused on data, facts, concepts, or strategies. Investigation, research, and analysis are the less glamorous aspects of information design, but they’re the most essential.
The form vs. function debate is never-ending. Of course, information design should aim to balance both, but when we start to celebrate visualizations for their beauty — and when agencies sell “prettigraphics” to clients who have real problems requiring bona fide information design help — there’s something deeply wrong. I just hope more voices and efforts join in promoting the “real” information design.