Saving Information Design History, Part 1


This post arrives coincidentally at the same time as the Information+ conference at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is among the few (and most recent) forums where serious information design practitioners and researchers are able explore and discuss key issues in the field. The spectacular lineup of speakers and talks reflects the calibre of discussion. I’m kicking myself for not being there, but I’m optimistic that this is one opportunity in a progression of events and milestones to advance the development of information design as a properly recognized discipline.

Once an obscure phenomenon known only to a small community of academics and professionals from psychology and design, information design has stepped gradually out of the shadows into the spotlight of more mainstream thinking and conversations. There is a strong desire for clarity, focus, sense, and meaning amid all our present social and global complexities, and information design has been evolving to rise to the challenge. However, even in this seeming golden age of information design, there is an inherent irony: the deep intellectual and historical foundations of this multi-disciplinary field of research and practice have been lost or obscured, while surface-level tools, techniques, visual artifacts, and publications have become the central focus of recent attention.

Information design’s identity and integrity have been shaped by several factors over the years, but one of the most significant forces to promote understanding — and misunderstanding — has been the rise of the web and the paper-to-digital transition of information design’s history and literature. The amount of information on the web about information design is growing, but it has become far too easy to mistake Google search results for all available information. Unfortunately, much of what Google serves up suffers from recency bias, inaccuracy, incompleteness, or plain old linkrot. Books and publications that are more than 20 years old (which describes a lot of valuable information design-related writing) either don’t rank high in search results or don’t appear online at all because they never made the leap from atoms to bits — and when they are mentioned or shared on social media, there’s often no accompanying credit to the original source. As paper trails vanish and offline research dwindles, many influential thinkers and important works slip through the cracks.

Losing Our Profession

An immediate consequence of this fading history is that the very term “information design” is losing clout in discussions that are squarely about communication for understanding. I’m seeing more articles talking directly about information design practices and principles with zero use of the term “information design” by name:

UX vs UI vs IA vs IxD : 4 Confusing Digital Design Terms Defined

Learning From Data Viz Pioneer Edward Tufte: 5 Lessons For Interface Designers

Visualizations That Really Work

Design in the Age of the App Icon

I’m not exactly sure why information design is missing from these articles. Maybe some of these authors don’t know about it or don’t fully understand it because of the flawed state of information on the web described earlier. Regardless of the specific reasons, these articles reflect a troubling trend: as newer offspring of design and technology surge in popularity and cobble together their own professional canon of heroes, ideas, and principles, they “borrow” from older sibling fields like information design with little to no acknowledgement — knowingly or not. And many of those who write about making the complex simple and presenting information typically skim the surface of these deep, rich topics, churning out shallow how-to listicles or click-baity showcases of “beautiful information” in order to feed the still growing appetite for all things viz-tech-design-innovation-creativity-etc-etc.

The real harm these phenomena are causing the still-solidifying discipline of information design has gone unaddressed today: by not appropriately identifying information design principles, practices, methods, and approaches by name as “information design,” the legacy and information encapsulated in that term diminishes. In the wilds of today’s fast-changing information ecosystem, information design may well fall prey to “survival of the sensational”: older ideas that lose equity, relevance, and mass appeal disintegrate and die over time, while young ideas that speak to the zeitgeist of current fads, fashions, and media buzz thrive atop the presumed graves of their predecessors. The best chance for anything old to sustain a pulse is to be made new again — to be recontextualized and reinvented, almost beyond recognition — to suit an increasingly fickle audience that has little time, patience, or interest to seek out original sources and learn what the past has to say for itself first-hand — if they even knew there was a past. The infographics and dataviz craze have unfortunately served that end by frequently slicing off the thin veneer of graphic design and visual rhetoric of information design that is most familiar to people, slapping on a fresh coat of paint, and putting it on wide display, while abandoning the “unsexy” theory, scholarship, and pioneering works that comprise the foundation and structure of information design.

Information Design Won’t Save Itself

For too long, the voice of information design has been quiet. There has been a steady murmur amongst isolated pockets of communities, and barely an intelligible whisper in the cacophony of public discourse (the voice of data visualization, however, has become a chorus, only increasing in volume). It’s time for information design to speak a little louder, and from the shoulders of our giants.

Information designers must do a better job of championing their field and their history in the face of ambiguity and confusion. It starts with reinforcing understanding of information design broadly (still an on-going process within the field) and appreciating the lineage of thought and practice that got us here — far beyond Tufte, Wurman, and other usual suspects. We need to be more diligent about doing our homework and reconnect with our roots, no matter how deep we have to dig. Granted, some practitioners may be more concerned with just doing the work or may consider information design just one more skill in their toolkit without any stake in the field, but what, then, becomes of the field? Whose responsibility is it to carry the torch and guide young designers and newcomers to information design, or to educate everyday people, governments, and organizations of the value this work? And who decides what gets carried forward, and what gets left behind?

In Part 2 of this post, I will explore the history of information design’s formalization by way of a literature review. Building on earlier work, the post will attempt to shed light on some little known influencers and links in the chain of information design’s development over the past 80 years or so. Stay tuned…


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