If you ask me what the hardest part of being an information designer is, only one thing comes to mind. It’s not developing an eye for layout or mastering all graphic forms. It’s not generating brilliant ideas or perfectly executing a concept on time and on budget. Nothing to do with finding the right content or data or discovering the optimal presentation. And actually no, it’s not even finding great projects or keeping a business afloat.
The hardest part of being an information designer is managing people (self included).
By “managing people,” I don’t mean supervision or control or anything remotely suggesting a power dynamic. It’s making sense of what makes people who they are — their very best, their absolute worst, and everything in between — and navigating different situations with grace, respect, and wisdom. It’s about peeling back the layers of what we see, hear, think, say, and do in order to come to terms with the psychological, emotional, and philosophical factors behind how we relate to one another and to ourselves.
Deep stuff. So what does this have to do with information design?
First off, let’s establish what an information designer’s main job is. Regardless of specialization, an information designer fundamentally brings order to disorder, creates structure where it lacks, and weaves systems out of seemingly disparate parts. To do that, an information designer must bring to bear a host of skills and proficiencies, like sound reasoning, knowledge of design principles and methods, and technical expertise to enable a particular outcome. An information designer must (re)define a problem, gather content/data, and follow some process to arrive at a solution (gross oversimplification here). It would be easy enough if we stopped there, but the one element that makes it all interesting is the wonderfully diverse people involved.
Assuming the role of the information designer, you typically have four key players to deal with: the client, the user/audience, your team members, and of course, yourself. Sounds a lot like other professions, but there’s one difference: you’re constantly trying to impose order and organization on people and situations that are often unruly, complex, and even irrational. Your job is not just to “shape” information about/for/with them but, in many cases, to orchestrate interactions and shape people’s thinking, attitudes, and behaviors as well. Information design often involves change of some sort to be planned for, communicated to, or enacted on people. In the process of doing the work, as the champion of logic and clarity, you’re trying damn hard to keep your own biases, preferences, feelings, and primitive urges in check. In the end, the “information design project” is just there to move the story along.* The real work is understanding people in order to find ways to help them be better and do better. The deeper you dig into a problem, the higher you climb from facts and figures into organizational strategy and change, the harder this challenge becomes.
Some of the more memorable moments in my career, the very same moments when I felt I grew as an information designer, were when I confronted head-on the stark realities of dealing with people. They were disorienting, sleep-depriving, and even nauseating. I view these as developmental lessons, in the same way that a child learns not to touch an open flame after getting burned. The goal is to know better next time and not get burned again.
Here’s a little walk-through of common people problems I’ve experienced on the job and the nuggets of wisdom I extracted from them:
Everyone has their favorite way of doing something, or special thing they made that they want others to value as much as they do. When you’re called in to rethink or redo it, or worse, when you go ahead and change it without their involvement or full buy-in, unpleasantness happens. Pride and ownership are extremely deep feelings and require extra special care to ensure any change is inclusive, thoughtful, and constructive, rather than destructive. Having been on both sides of that equation, I’ve come to realize that focusing on achieving a shared end goal and finding the best way there together should be the driving factor, not ego or fixation on one’s own solution.
Wurman calls it the disease of familiarity, when someone is so deeply entrenched in their field of expertise that they can’t explain it simply to an outsider. It can also blind them to inherent gaps in their own reasoning and make alternative points of view unimaginable. Such closeness can breed resistance to change because the problems others may see aren’t readily visible to them — everything already works just fine, thank you. Drawing a picture of a situation informed by different perspectives including their own can help, but it’s just a static image. You need to use the picture to prompt open discussion and allow time for someone to actually absorb and accept the picture in order to understand what possibilities exist outside of their comfort zone.
Impatience is the source of much stress, frustration, and nasty behavior, no matter what industry you’re in. Most information design work requires unhurried, focused concentration within a dedicated span of time to be truly effective. A meeting full of fast-talking executives calls for just as much slowing down and deliberate idea capture as a data visualization project might call for weeks or months of data collection, analysis, and synthesis. Confronting clients who balk at necessary process steps and timelines can be tough when they don’t see the value or impact on the end result. Unpacking the urgency and figuring out what’s really driving the deadline — in a calm, collected way — can potentially defuse an apparent rush. But sometimes, when there’s a real fire drill, you need to muster every ounce of good nature to get the job done, rather than vent about how unfair it is. Once the dust settles, you can work with your client or boss to find ways to manage situations better in the future.
Sometimes people don’t want to do something because it seems beyond their duties, takes too much effort, or they just don’t care. Sometimes that’s you. Negative feelings generated over the course of a bumpy project can kill motivation and lead to indirect sabotage: a passive-aggressive e-mail here, a half-baked deliverable there. Rather than face the problem directly and risk an argument with a client, boss, or team member, you might choose to put up with it or just bail out. Conditions usually deteriorate soon after the start of a project if there’s a lack of understanding of purpose, goals, roles, responsibilities, timelines, etc. A project can ground to a halt or fall apart if underlying personal issues bubble up to the surface and interfere with day-to-day activities. One approach is to focus on the plus side of doing good work, like the benefit to the end user/audience or improvement of one’s own skills while working to pinpoint the source of the problem. The idea is to actively map your way through the situation rather than sink into a rut of indifference that can drag down the whole project with it.
Habits and patterns are hard to break. Familiarity and comfort in the known are partly responsible, but the constant repetition of a routine can snowball over months and years and amass a weight of its own. Inertia can take the form of a company policy (that’s just the way we do things) or a frame of thought (I’m just not creative/visual/etc.). The problem is not so much the habit as is the deeply ingrained, almost immovable set of behaviors associated with it — also known as stubbornness (I won’t change). Clients are often fearful of any kind of change because it might disrupt the status quo and create more problems for the organization, whether it’s a new weekly meeting template, a revamped design and workflow for creating research reports, or a strategic map presenting a company-wide reorganization. When you face a brick wall of opposition, a good strategy is to first dig deeper and learn more about the nature of the stubbornness. A little time spent listening to real concerns and showing genuine interest can open dialogue and inform how a new way of working can be introduced.
Of course, there’s no magic secret to fixing people problems. People smarts come with age and experience, and there is no mastery because, after all, you’re only human. You do the best you can, try to listen to the angel on your shoulder, give people a chance, and always, always seek understanding. I’d say the best moments happen not just when a project is a success, but when you and the people you’re working with run into a problem, like a disagreement or complete misunderstanding, and find a way to work it out together. That wave of relief after making the right decision to untangle a problem and breaking through a tense situation — you know, that pile-of-bricks-lifted-off-your-chest feeling — is priceless. The sense of knowing someone better than before because you resolved a conflict is a special type of understanding. It can move mountains.
*This is Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin concept, which I discovered in Dan Hill’s excellent book, Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary.