Searching for an Info Design Community

I’ve spent most of my career looking for a community — a collection of like-minded folks who care about information design the same way I do. People from all different backgrounds, different specialties, and different places along their journeys. People I can learn from, share with, talk shop, knock back a few beers with. People who offer a sympathetic “I know, right?” when I complain about all those little things that only information designers get worked up about, like inconsistent icons, illegible graphics, and poorly placed signage.

Seek and Ye Shall Find… That You Have to Keep Seeking

My quest for community has taken me early on to the InfoDesign Cafe as a quiet observer, I-don’t-know-how-many design events in NYC, a IIID summer academy in Salzburg, Austria, presentations at 2CO Communicating Complexity in Sardinia, Italy, and IIID VisionPlus 2015 in Birmingham, England, and presently to the Information Design NYC Meetup group as co-organizer. Each experience has been valuable in its own way, and I have made valuable connections, but I didn’t feel like I was part of a strong community (and as I came to learn, our Meetup group of over 950 members is overwhelmingly comprised of info design enthusiasts and “dabblers,” but practicing, self-identified information designers are quite scarce).

Of course, I follow and interact with a range of people on Twitter, but the most active communities I find there focus heavily on data visualization, data journalism, and infographics. Sure, there are rich discussions and plenty of camaraderie there, but to be honest, not much exploration of the things I’m interested in, like encouraging more crossover among the understanding professions, expanding what information design could be, preserving our history, and just making sense of it all (at least this blog has succeeded in sparking some conversation over the years).

What’s still missing for me is a sense of belonging, like I’m a part of something.

Information+, A New Hope

Back in 2016, the Information+ conference debuted. The conference touted itself as “an interdisciplinary conference, workshop, and exhibition aimed at bringing together researchers, educators and practitioners to discuss opportunities and challenges in information design and information visualization.” The program committee represented a broad cross-section of those fields, with many familiar names not normally listed together in one place. My interest was piqued! Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I hoped that this gathering would form the basis for a new and more integrated community. The resulting presentation videos were impressive, but I didn’t see much activity after that. 

When I found out about the 2018 conference, I didn’t want to miss the chance. The call for participation seemed to invite a spectrum of perspectives: 

As an interdisciplinary event, we invite proposals from all fields of professional practice, research, and education in information design and visualization. We welcome submissions on such topics as (but not limited to): the environment, advocacy and law, health and medical applications, social and political issues, cultural analysis and collections, digital humanities, and projects in data journalism.

I drafted a proposal with my partner in crime, Sheila Pontis. The topic was an easy choice for this event, an issue that troubled me so much and yet got hardly any attention: Who is the information design community, and how did we get here? In my experience, there were too many unanswered questions about who we are and where we came from, given how fragmented and specialized information design and visualization practices have become, not to mention the fleeting glimpses into info design and visualization histories beyond the Western canon of founding fathers plus Florence Nightingale. 

What further motivated that choice was the mini-controversy sparked by Aditya Jain in a provocative tweet about the lack of diversity among the conference’s 49-person program committee. The flurry of reactions came and went on Twitter, and the organizers of Information+ 2018 responded with a diversity scholarship. But where was the dialogue, the concerted movement for awareness and change within the information design and information visualization communities? Why did we not seize the opportunity to actually strengthen and grow our community with voices who don’t get heard nearly enough, and stories that never get told?

In light of the yet-unaddressed issues with diversity and inclusion the conference unintentionally raised, not to mention the fragmented state of the field, we submitted this proposal for a presentation that, no doubt, would take considerable work to develop:


Who are we and what are we doing? A call for self-reflection in information design

Authors: Michael Babwahsingh (corresponding author) & Sheila Pontis

Key words: community, dialogue, reflection, information design

Information design has taken a long time to get to where it is today. Once the esoteric domain of a small community of academics and professionals, information design has gradually made its way into the spotlight, with its own peer-reviewed journal, international professional associations, undergraduate and graduate programs of study, conferences and gatherings, a rich body of literature, and a growing population of practitioners around the world. The rise of the internet, the proliferation of information design-related websites and social media content, and the ongoing infographics and data visualization boom have boosted the popularity of visual information displays and clear communication in business, government, education, and society.

Despite the great strides of progress information design has made, there is a troubling paradox: for a field devoted to making the complex clear, information design has yet to make sense of itself. Attention has long focused on the “what” and “how” of information design practice — the methods, skills, tools, techniques, and visual outputs — while fundamental challenges facing the field as a whole have gone largely unexamined. What it is, who does it, what information there is about it, where it came from, and how community has taken shape around it have grown fuzzier, the more time passes and the more change unfolds within and around the field. There is a pressing need to bring order to information design currently, not just for the sake of practicing what we preach, but to ensure that the history, legacy, and efforts of countless individuals that gave form and meaning to the field thus far will survive and thrive well into the future.

This talk will present a bigger picture of information design across several dimensions, including the following:

  • Identity: What unifies practitioners under the umbrella of “information design,” and how well recognized and understood is the profession internally and externally?
  • Representation: What is the full spectrum of people who comprise this field, professionally, racially, ethnically, and geographically?
  • Knowledge: How do we make sense of the current overabundance of information about information design, scattered across books, journals, websites, and social media platforms?
  • History: What do we know and not know about the strands of our history, especially beyond the Western canon of information design?
  • Community: What does the information design community look like, from its participants and platforms to its overall influence and impact?

To address these issues, this talk will present corresponding recommendations where applicable. The ultimate goal of this talk, however, is to spur broader, more holistic dialogue about the present state of information design and promote greater collective participation in charting the way forward.


Hopes Dashed (Well, Not Quite…)

Today I received a rejection e-mail along with the reviewers’ varied comments, which all boiled down to three general reasons why the proposal didn’t make it:

1. Lack of immediate relevance or value

2. Lack of research rigor or description of methodology

3. High volume of submissions

One reviewer was borderline, another accepted, and the third rejected it, stating: 

“I’m also not sure why know [sic] is an important moment for people to take stock of information design, per se. When it is journalism that is being questioned. This feels to me more like a pitch for hiring information designers than it does something that will change the way I think.”

I was deeply disheartened to read this, but in a way, it actually bolstered the need for this discussion, to surface all these differing views about the state of things today so we can understand what matters to each of us, and what doesn’t. This type of self-reflection has practical consequences: how do we know what to teach, what professional standards to uphold, what history to tell, and what future we envision for information design if we don’t come together as a community — to see each other and know each other not just creators of visual displays of information but as participants in a collective effort or shared cause.

The Journey Goes On

Despite the rejection, I’m not bitter, and I’m not discouraged… that much. I was relieved — and surprised — to hear from others on Twitter who didn’t make the final cut. It’s just one conference, after all. One that I will not be attending.

I will still find a way to bring the idea and the spirit of that proposal to life somehow, perhaps in a less academic forum. And as much as I feel like an outsider in all of this, a community of one, I realize now that I should be putting more of myself out there and making more of an effort to connect in the way I know how. Reframing the problem, maybe it’s less about knocking on doors in search of a community to belong to than participating in different conversations and creating more opportunities for thoughtful exchange. And then seeing where that may lead.

2 comments

  1. Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry to hear that you feel that way; that you don’t really belong to a community. I think it’s useful to discuss what an “information designer” community might mean – although I’m afraid we’ll quickly get to the point where we realize that info design has many many subfields (https://medium.com/visualizing-the-field/the-7-kinds-of-data-visualization-people-9964e80443a7) and is hard to define. It’s important to find a few people who do a very, very similar thing as you do, I think. E.g., I like to talk to datavizzers who work in journalism…I have more to talk about with them than with datavizzers in BI, since BI is not really my field (I still have more to talk about with them than with biologists! You get the idea.)

    I have a question: You put a LOT of questions in your proposal. How did you want to find the answers to them? I assume you want to look at surveys like the one by Elijah Meeks, but I’m curious to hear more about your method (point 2 in your list of rejection reasons).

    I’m especially curious about your ideas to the question: “Knowledge: How do we make sense of the current overabundance of information about information design, scattered across books, journals, websites, and social media platforms?” – any, even blurry thoughts on that are highly appreciated. Thanks!

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for reading an posting a comment, Lisa. Much better than Twitter! 🙂

      I think, before judging where we’ll land with the conversation (ie, info design too big, too hard to define), we need to just start having it and actually hear all those perspectives, from as many voices as possible, and see what emerges. Besides, we still don’t even know how everyone understands info design, who does it, why they do it, etc, and we can’t rely on a handful of “authorities” to shape the meaning for us. How that discussion will materialize, I’m still not sure, but I’m working on it.

      Granted, specialist fields like data viz have specific communities and sub-communities of interest and practice, which is great for the reasons you describe. There has been lots of amazing discussion in data viz about the profession, best practices, tools, history, evidence, etc. You have contributed much there! Specialization enables focused, deeper exploration of topics and new insights, but I think it can also create filter bubbles where we miss the forest for the trees or overlook really basic questions. I’m a hybrid designer with a base in info design and a foot in a variety of other areas, which is great but also sucks: I can see the big picture (sort of), make connections, and find gaps across the specialties. But I struggle to find other hybrid people who like doing that too (there is one special exception, and I married her).

      As far as answering those questions, I didn’t approach that from a purely scientific perspective. An academic conference probably wasn’t the best place to pitch that laundry list, but at least I gave it a shot. While the point was dialog (a panel discussion or workshop?) more than presenting research findings, I did intend to conduct interviews and surveys (similar to Elijah’s), plus literature review, blending qualitative and quantitative methods, to paint a picture of where we are. Of course, many of those questions don’t have neat and tidy answers, but sparking conversation can help us move forward and zero in on where to focus.

      So, here are two blurry thoughts and one concrete action to address — but not fix — the knowledge fragmentation problem:

      1) Create a structured online home for info design that centralizes and organizes basic learning resources, informative articles, reading lists, FAQs, discussion forums, but that also links to a network of other existing sites, schools, etc. The goal would be to make it an open, community-supported educational resource, not a promotional platform or marketplace. Two sites that sort of illustrate this, but aren’t exactly a match, are the InfoVis Wiki (https://infovis-wiki.net/wiki/Main_Page) and the Interaction Design Foundation (https://www.interaction-design.org/). I would like to make this happen somehow.

      2) Form a professional association to unify info design professionals or, more broadly, understanding professionals (the various fields focused on enabling understanding in any form, like IA, UX, technical communication, etc). The goal would be to provide leadership and amplify the voice of the profession, gain more collective visibility and understanding in the public eye, and advocate for people who do this kind of work. There’s already the IDA in the UK (http://www.infodesign.org.uk/), and the IIID in Austria (https://www.iiid.net/) has pursued something like this globally for many years, but momentum has been waning. And there hasn’t been anything like that in the U.S. since the now-defunct U.S. chapter of the IDA or the now-defunct Information Design Special Interest Group (ID-SIG) of the Society for Technical Communication. It still surprises me that there is yet no data viz professional association, given how much energy and engagement there is behind it.

      3) I’m co-authoring a textbook on information design for undergrads with Sheila Pontis. It will synthesize a lot of loose threads and address topics that don’t get much attention. We’ll be posting updates over at Sense Information Design (http://www.senseinfodesign.com/).

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