Saving Information Design History, Part 2


Information design has had more than a few missing pieces in its story for some time, as described in Part 1, so rather than curse the fact that the problem exists, it makes more sense to start filling in the gaps, one by one. With knowledge.

What follows is a very preliminary reading list on information design’s formalization, from the early days when the concept of information design began to take shape to the growing solidification of the term and community of researchers and practitioners surrounding it. This list of 15 publications is highly subjective: it skews towards authors and titles that in my experience are not very well-known or popularized in current discussions of information design, but that have been influential in shaping or adding to information design’s core of knowledge. Important but more widely recognized and publicized “usual suspects” of information design and data visualization reading lists, such as Tufte, Wurman, Bertin, Ware, Tukey, Wilkinson, and Cleveland are not included here.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t yet read every single book here cover-to-cover, although a few are in varying states of completion. My comments highlight key points and reasons why each was an influential point in a progression of thought. Even at that high level, this post runs quite long, so grab a tea or coffee and settle in… (and if you can help it, try not to read this on a smartphone).

Conceptualization: Early Thinking about Design for Understanding

1) International Picture Language by Otto Neurath (1936)


Neurath, an Austrian philosopher and sociologist, was among the earliest pioneers of design for understanding. The visual system he developed, called ISOTYPE (International System of TYpographic Picture Education) was a breakthrough for representing scientific, technical, historical, and social concepts for the broadest possible audience. The principles codified in this book helped lay the foundation for later information design thinking, and the distinctive graphic style of pictogram used in ISOTYPE by became a model and inspiration for subsequent public communications systems, yet with little direct credit. Notably, Neurath used the term “transformation” to describe the specialized skill of “turning statements of science into pictures.” This concept, and the role of the “transformer” in making complex issues understandable to many, would re-emerge in different incarnations, as the next few books show.

2) Integration, The New Discipline in Design by Will Burtin (Graphis No. 27, 1949)

1949-integration-graphis-will-burtinWill Burtin was another early pioneer of information design thinking whose work pushed the boundaries of how design communicates science and other technical subjects, although very little of his original thinking was actually published. In this short Graphis magazine article, Burtin presents the concept of “integration,” which, similar to Neurath’s “transformation,” aims to move beyond the traditional notion of graphic design as pure representation and art making. He describes the role of the designer as an interpreter of science who, through the integration of light, space, color, texture, motion, time, physical materials, and other experiential elements, can enhance visual communication. Burtin describes this synthesis of design elements as follows, and in doing so, articulates an essential aim of information design work: “If design and art work do not attempt to dictate, but are employed to accelerate understanding, a smooth and dramatic flow develops, which makes the eye take in the various information units as it goes along.”

3) Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar (1961, reissued 2015)

1961-visual-design-in-actionA successful Kickstarter campaign led to the publication of a facsimile edition of this book, a compilation of Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar’s thinking on design and iconic examples of his work spanning identity systems, magazines, catalogs, and even toys. In this book, Sutnar happens to use the term “information design” as “the integration of meaning [content] and visualization [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.” Sutnar succeeded in codifying basic principles of information design in this book as well as in Designing Information and Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards in Visual Communication, both co-authored with Knud Lönberg-Holm — and both notoriously hard to obtain.

4) Graphic Design for the Computer Age: Visual Communication for All Media by Edward A. Hamilton (1970)


This obscure book by Edward Hamilton, art director of Time-Life Books (publisher of various educational and how-to book series), presents a survey of visual communication, with particular emphasis on information design: the design of “serious, purposeful information,” as distinct and separate from other aspects of design, such as advertising. Hamilton uses the term “information design” frequently (there is even a chapter called “What is Information Design?), although it is unclear how Hamilton came upon the term. He describes the role of the information designer / visual communicator in “the creation of pattern — coherent information — out of a chaos of components” and touches on several dimensions of information design work: human interest, visual language, structure, sequence, scientific illustration, and the latest computer capabilities of the time.

5) Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data edited by Walter Herdeg (1974)

1974-graphis-diagramsThis compilation of graphs, charts, and diagrams helped draw attention to the art and craft of design for understanding on an international scale by showcasing works that represent the range of uses and applications for displaying information. Rather than highlight the aesthetic appeal of visualization, as the recent spate of books often do, this book provides a snapshot of the state of the art circa the early 1970’s and the variety of creative solutions for showing flow charts, timetables, maps, and other visual forms.

A year earlier, Herdeg had published The Artist in the Service of Science, an expanded hardcover edition of Graphis magazine issue 165 from 1973. Although it receives less recognition than Graphis Diagrams these days (and relies heavily on the term “artist” to label creators of visual explanations of science), the book offers a useful historical survey of scientific illustration milestones, methods, and notable figures.

Graphis Press published follow-up compilations to Herdeg’s 1974 volume: Graphis Diagrams 1 (1988) and Graphis Diagram 2 (1996). Both volumes have the same historical overview but different forewords. Interestingly, each volume reflects the stylistic and technical evolution of diagram creation, as well as growing range of uses.

6) Living by Design by Pentagram (1978)

1978-living-by-designOnly six years old as an agency, Pentagram created this book as an introduction to design for non-expert enthusiasts, and it drew from its internal practice areas as a basis for the structure of the book: identity design, information design, environmental design, and product design (with a final chapter that looks inside Pentagram as a company). The chapter on information design is divided into broad sub-sections that relate much more to traditional graphic design than to information design practice as it is understood today: systems, posters, packaging, promotions, and exhibitions; the notable exception, “systems,” refers to directories, signage, and other extensive programs for organizing and presenting information. While there’s little information unique to information design itself, distinct from general graphic design principles, this book adds meaning to the the still nascent term “information design” by equating it with the clear, structured communication of a wide range of information.

Formalization: Information Design Starts to Take Shape

7) Information Design: The Design and Evaluation of Signs and Printed Material edited by Ronald Easterby and Harm Zwaga (1984)


The NATO Conference on Visual Presentation of Information, held in September 1978 in Het Vennenbos, The Netherlands, was one of the earliest forums focused on the visual presentation of information. The conference sought to shift focus away from computer-based information display techniques and towards “simple technology and traditional forms of presenting information” such as print documents, road traffic signs, instructions, and graphic symbols. It also broke ground by convening professionals from diverse groups involved in the creation of these artifacts — graphic designers, industrial designers, typographers, engineers, psychologists, ergonomists, and human factors researchers — in an attempt to create something of a unifying framework for the theory and practice of designing information.

This nearly 600-page proceedings volume, published six years after the conference, assembles writings from the conference’s contributors, focusing on design evaluation, design parameters, and applications such as sign systems, road traffic signs, consumer/safety signs, and printed material. It compiles research into the processes of visual perception and cognition at work behind information displays and fortifies the practice of information design with a basis of research upon which additional work would follow.

Another important outcome of the conference was the launch of the Information Design Journal (1979), which continues to be the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to information design today.

Exposition: Information Design Thinking Unfolds

The 1980’s saw the birth of the Vienna-based International Institute for Information Design (IIID), and the early 1990’s welcomed the Information Design Association in the UK, both of which are still active today. The U.S.-based Society for Technical Communication started the Information Design Special Interest Group (STC ID SIG) in 1997, but unfortunately, the group is no longer active and very few traces of it remain online. A handful of books from the 1990’s to the present stand apart from the typical how-to books that began to emerge during this time. They further codify, elaborate on, and even raise questions about the nature of information design, its role in the creation of electronic communications and experiences, and its relationship to sibling fields such as technical communication/document design.

8) Visual Function: An Introduction to Information Design by Paul Mijksenaar (1997)

1997-visual-functionThis compact little book (just 56 pages) covers a number of essential topics in information design, supported by an abundance of examples from history and recent practice. Mijksenaar, a wayfinding expert best known for his uniform airport wayfinding systems, takes a conversational, often opinionated tone in discussing issues of form and function in information design, with particular emphasis on understanding the content, people, and purpose of a message or communication system before engaging in the graphic design of a solution. He brings together some useful information design frameworks to help bridge theory and practice for designers. One framework classifies types of visual representations (e.g., iconic images, abstract images, alphabetic language), and another, an adaptation of cartographer Jacques Bertin’s “visual variables” for designers, groups the variables by function: distinguishing, hierarchical, and supporting. While the content may seem too light to some, the value of this book lies in its approachability and ease of reading, which help provide a manageable introduction to information design for young graphic designers and those from other fields.

9) Visual Information for Everyday Use: Design and Research Perspectives edited by Harm Zwaga, Theo Boersma, and Henriette Hoonhout (1999)

1999-visual-information-for-everyday-useSixteen years after the Het Vennebos conference, a second similar gathering took place in The Netherlands: “Public graphics: visual information for everyday use” in Lunteren, focusing again on “static public information products.” This proceedings book, published four years after the Lunteren symposium, follows the same structure as the event, with sections on methods and methodology, user instructions, warnings, forms, tables and graphs, maps and plans, wayfinding information, and graphic symbols. At at time when the World Wide Web was starting to take off and attention began its inevitable shift to the screen, this book asserted the need for deeper understanding of applied behavioral research and cognitive ergonomics in the design of print information, through methods that are now primarily associated with interactive and product design, such as usability testing. Overall, the collection of writings in this book sought to bridge the gaps between psychology, social science, design, and industry under the still-forming umbrella of information design and urge traditional designers away from intuition-driven design and towards a more research-based approach.

A notable community-centered outcome of the Lunteren symposium was the start of the “InfoDesign” and “InfoDesign Cafe” e-mail discussion lists, which sadly are no longer active. (The site housing the archived “InfoDesign” list from 2002 to 2011 recently went offline. The Yahoo! Group archive of the “InfoDesign Cafe” list from 1997 to 2005 is still online, for now.)

10) Information Design edited by Robert Jacobson (1999)

2000-information-designAs with the previous book, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a shift in focus from print to web and interactive media, which prompted many to re-examine and broaden the information design conversation as fundamental issues were still being debated. This anthology, culled from a diverse group of contributors, provides a snapshot of a field still in flux and grappling with the newer challenges of designing for online and screen-intermediated experiences. Across three sections, each devoted to theory, practice, and technology, the contributions present a spectrum of viewpoints on what information design is (or isn’t), different supporting theoretical principles (e.g., Sense-Making, human-centered design, wayfinding), the variety of applications and approaches (e.g., addressing information needs at a sensory and perceptual level, maximizing graphic techniques in the information design process), and what the future information experience might look like (e.g., defining the multimedia experience, the use of 3-D graphics).

11) Information Design: An Introduction by Rune Pettersson (2002)

2002-information-design-an-introductionA meatier though far less visual counterpart to Mijksenaar’s introductory text, Pettersson’s book dives deep into five areas: message design, text design, image design, graphic design, and cognition. The book expounds on information design theory far beyond most books I’ve seen, covering many basic and advanced concepts and principles behind creating clear, effective communications (or “information utility goods,” as Pettersson refers to them). However, as exhaustive as this book is on the intellectual side, there is surprisingly little by way of practical application: case studies and professional examples demonstrating the theories described are absent. Still, despite this shortcoming, the book is valuable as an essential reference for why and how certain information design techniques work, or don’t.

12) Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication edited by Michael J. Albers and Beth Mazur (2003)

2003-content-and-complexityTechnical communication and information design have long struggled for clarity within and across their professional boundaries. There isn’t clear consensus on how the two relate to one another, but it is clear that they have much in common. This book combines perspectives from professionals in both fields to work towards synthesizing theoretical and practical knowledge across both. Contributions are not grouped by topic, although a few themes recur, such as similarities/differences between information design and technical communication (particularly, the common design challenges both address), the role of research in enriching practice, and techniques for improving (mostly) technical communication-specific practices. As with other anthologies, this book reflects of-the-moment thinking, especially in the context of the emerging Web and the role of both professions in that space.

13) Information and Document Design: Varieties on Recent Research edited by Saul Carliner, Jan Piet Verckens, Cathy de Waele (2006)

2006-information-and-document-designAnother Dutch conference, another proceedings book. This time, it was the 2004 “Information Design Conference” in Tilburg, The Netherlands, which focused on research in the overlapping fields of information design and document design (an almost-synonym for technical communication). The ten studies featured in the book are organized into three sections: marketing communication (intended to sell), functional communication (intended to inform), and online communication (including websites and e-mail). A fundamental aim of this book is to provide an over-arching perspective of research in information and document design by addressing several understanding gaps: geographic differences between North America and Europe, different research focuses and methods, different roles and disciplines involved in research (also across geographies), and the predominance of experimental versus practical research, among others. This book may not readily appeal to practitioners, given its academic style, although the lessons gleaned from the studies featured directly inform real-world work on information- and text-intensive projects.

14) Thoughts on Designing Information by Inge Gobert and Johan Van Looveren (2015)

2015-thoughts-on-designing-informationTaking a break from research and anthologies… this recent publication aimed at young information designers draws together the personal and professional perspectives of sixteen information designers working in data visualization, editorial design, interaction design, and environmental design, to paint a broad picture of information design today. Interviews with each designer highlight the core commonalities uniting their work: finding engaging ways to connect people and information, mastering tools and methods, and collaboration. There are also differences in individual aims, self-identification (as something other than “information designer”), and what aspiring information designers need in order to prepare for their future career. What sets this book apart is that it takes information design seriously as a real field of study and practice, unlike many other books that focus on the creation or glorification of visual outputs by “artists” and “designers.” It showcases the range of possibilities and challenges information designers encounter as thinkers, problem solvers, and artists.

15) Information design as principled action: Making information accessible, relevant, understandable, and usable edited by Jorge Frascara (2015)

2015-information-design-as-principled-actionOne last anthology! Frascara has been active in information design for a long time; book #7 above (Information Design: The Design and Evaluation of Signs and Printed Material) features a paper he wrote, entitled “Design principles for instructional materials.” As the title suggests, the book centers on practical and ethical concerns in the field today, although there is due attention to theory in a section called “Conceptual Frames.” Other sections of the book deal with information design history, case studies in design practice, and case studies in design education. Apart from the specifics that each contribution delves into, the book as a whole mirrors not just (part of) the current state of the art— the latest research, methodologies, and applications — but the voice, spirit, and substance of a maturing field whose importance has only grown. Frascara captures this point in the book’s conclusion:

There is an urgent need to develop a culture of clear communication. Our profession has a mission to promote this culture in both its visual and its verbal form. To do this, not only it is necessary to be convinced of the value of clear communication: one has to acquire the tools to implement it. These tools, discussed in this book, allow us to practice the design that is needed: user-centered, evidence-based, and results-oriented.

Information design is an accountable practice, and evaluation of performance is an integral part of its processes. It does not have to do with styles, fashions, artistic intuitions or arresting personalities: its material is daily life and the possibility to improve it through a better way of managing information.


Books, journals, articles, and other writings are a vital link with information design’s past. As this short list shows, people from many backgrounds have been wrestling with conceptions, definitions, boundaries, intersections, lineages, and best practices of this crazy thing known as “information design” for quite some time, and still do today. What matters is that they have done so with respect for the past by building upon the ideas of those who came before them (the references found in the back of most of these books are a goldmine). As long as writings about information design and related concepts are known of, findable, accessible — and most importantly, used in a constructive way to promote learning and understanding for a range of audiences — the field may yet preserve its integrity and flourish well into the future.

Since a comprehensive information design history has yet to be written, I’ve relied on Beth Mazur’s high-level timeline from “Information Design in Motion,” featured in Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication (2003), as the backbone for part of this post.


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