Category: General


Make Crappy Drawings


I am a slow thinker, so I need to draw to make sure I am keeping track of everything. I draw to see what’s in my head and what people tell me, so more often than not, I’m drawing in a meeting at the flipchart or whiteboard, during a conversation, or at least once or twice a day when working alone on a project. Line by line, shape by shape, what emerges isn’t some stunning masterpiece rendered in Sharpie or EXPO Dry-Erase marker that would give Leonardo Da Vinci pause. It’s just a crappy drawing.

Pretty isn’t Everything

Drawing and sketching have received more attention in recent years, although their value as thinking tools is often overshadowed by their aesthetic appeal. When I see certain creative professionals tout the importance of sketching and visualizing ideas, I hardly ever see ugly — but clear — drawings as examples (there are plenty of pretty but unclear ones, though). They often set unreasonable standards for what drawings should look like, with their delicately inked sketchnotes, lush graphic recordings teeming with cheerful illustrations and deft hand-lettering, or architecturally exacting pen-and-ink concept diagrams. Rather than expose the difficult trial-and-error work of figuring stuff out on paper until you get it right, these examples just showcase a single end product and flaunt the creator’s artistic talent, while creating the false impression that “good” drawings have to look just so, and that they happen in one shot on the first try.



I appreciate artistic drawing in certain respects, but my attitude and relationship to it has evolved as my work has evolved. My design journey actually began with a deep interest in art. Over the course of my design training and career, I’ve departed radically from the formal, figurative representation I once sought to perfect. Visual thinking is an essential, irreplaceable part of my information design work, and my drawing method reflects the relationship between the two; fundamental structural and visual principles take priority, like symmetry, balance, rhythm, spacing, contrast, and visual flow. No stylistic illustration or dimensional rendering.



Crappy Drawing Leads to Clearer Thinking

While I do apply my art training heavily to my personal drawing, I don’t approach my drawing as art and don’t aim to put it all on display for the world to see. Mostly, it’s just for me, to help me identify and put together all the pieces of whatever mental puzzle I’m confronted with. My goals are always speed and quantity: I fill sheet after sheet of cheap newsprint paper with messy, crude symbols and shorthand text annotations that quickly map connections, flows, and other relationships that are too many or too intertwined for my simple brain to hold at the same time. Nothing is precious. One after the other, the iterations accumulate until, say, version ten, when the thinking has solidified sufficiently and the message or story resonates. Viewing all the iterations of a diagram or all the dimensions of a story pinned up on a wall helps me see what’s working and what isn’t, zero in on what I want to improve or make consistent, so I can focus on developing the next round of refined sketches. The process can be time consuming, even when the drawings flow, but I’ve come to accept that there are no shortcuts. There is, however, a sense of a stopping point to the cycle of making and reflecting: when almost all of the major conceptual, structural, and graphic problems have been reasonably resolved.



If I’m creating something that needs to communicate to others (a client or their audience), I move to the computer to make use of the precision and ease of production it affords me. I get to work with clean geometric shapes, lines, and curves, as well as take advantage of scaling, nesting, and duplicating elements in a composition (I recall achieving some of these effects ages ago with many redrawn images, tape, and creative use of a photocopier). The digital diagram serves as another thinking tool that enables easier iteration, manipulation, and reuse to get an idea or concept across.

My favorite thing about crappy sketches is that they are pure process and completely disposable. Once they’ve served their purpose, I scan or photograph them for later reference, then shred or recycle them. Most of the sketches shown in this post no longer exist in paper form.



C’mon, Get Crappy

To me, the greatest benefit of drawing is in the support of concentration and focus. It effectively directs attention on visual exploration and investigation — whether in fine art or problem solving — and it can even induce a zone-like state. Working through a progression of crappy rough sketches to more refined ones is also a lot like visiting the eye doctor and testing different lens strengths for new eyeglasses. The blurry image gets sharper and sharper with each new lens, until at last the world is in crisp, clear view. But it takes some work, along with a hefty resetting of expectations.

Drawing to think is within virtually everyone’s capacity, yet its value is untapped because of inhibition, self-consciousness, and intimidatingly high standards popularized in the professional creative world:

  • If drawing skill holds you back, create a language that makes sense to you and that you can draw almost as fast as you can write. Then it’s a matter of practice. (A trick for dealing with hard-to-draw concepts is to write the word, then draw a box around it so it becomes an object among other elements you draw.)
  • If wasting paper is a problem, don’t use an expensive sketchbook or fancy paper. Hoard used paper or buy the cheapest drawing pads (hint: sketch pads for children are cheaper than “professional” ones and work just fine). Or maybe consider a small whiteboard. You’ll feel more free to explore when you have a surface you’re comfortable messing up.
  • If using up pens and markers seems wasteful, just use anything that writes with a nice dark line. Maybe stock up on really cheap writing instruments or use something that takes ink or lead refills.

And if you’re afraid your drawings don’t look like the stuff you see online or in fancy books or that people will make fun if they see them, who cares? Embrace the crappiness. All that matters is that your drawings make sense to you and help you sort out whatever’s going on in your head.


An Accessible Future


What will the future of information design look like? Often, technology rises up to propose the answer: better software and analytic tools, more sophisticated visual forms, ubiquitous touchscreen-based and virtual information environments, immediate data and information access anywhere. Sci-fi fantasy made real seems an appealing prospect to some, and technology has fast been catching up: it’s only a matter of time before we’re invoking holographic information panels and gliding through multi-layered data streams while walking down the street (without smart devices or embarrassing head gear). But is that all we should expect, and more to the point, is that the best we should set out to achieve?

Rather than ask what more we can do, we might do well to ask what we can do better. Information design is a field shaped as much by imagination as it is by craft. We are capable of applying as much creativity to identifying and framing problems as we are to solving them. If we want to forge ahead into a meaningful future, why don’t we challenge the status quo of pursuing and optimizing known solution domains and start rattling information design out of its comfort zone? Why don’t we ask what’s stopping us from fully realizing information design’s potential to help people? And how best should we harness technology to remove those obstacles?

Many different people, but one presentation format

A persistent challenge in information design is designing for the broadest audience and ensuring that the most people can understand a message, be it a warning, a safety alert, a transit service change, or a simple indication of an option. Airport signage, mass transit systems, highway and city traffic signs, emergency notifications, and other communications are meant to benefit the public, but often that refers to a specific sub-set of the population: sharp-sighted, able-bodied, relatively young people fluent in the local language and visual conventions. Routinely excluded are the elderly, the non-native language speakers, those with impairments of vision, hearing, and mobility, and those with cognitive differences. Even with the introduction of federal regulations (the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S.) and slowly growing recognition of universal design and design for all in product design, architecture, and urban planning, inequalities in the everyday information experience persist.

Tied to the challenge of multiple audiences for the same information is the fact that an information design solution is typically presented one way, whether it’s print, environmental, or screen-based media: one form of display, one typeface and size, one color scheme, one written message (possibly translated to other languages on the same display or supplemental versions). While it’s true that different layouts of the same information exist when the size and physical context of the display change (as with responsive web design or transit safety message displays), each instance adheres to one set of design choices within a brand or visual system. Every design decision, by nature, rejects a multitude of other possibilities and permutations, and collectively these decisions are supposed to average out for the widest possible audience. Even the most carefully-considered “effective” designs inevitably fall short because a segment of the population can’t see the message, can’t read the message clearly or understand it, can’t interact with the information display, and can’t find alternative options that suit their needs and abilities. To say it’s unfair that whole groups of people are unable to enjoy the same level of access and affordance as others because they don’t fit the “average” would be a gross understatement.

How can information designers start embracing the diverse needs and requirements of all kinds of people and truly design for maximum inclusion by all means available — especially when it comes to essentials like safety, security, and well-being?

Information that adapts to people’s needs

Consider the services and businesses that presume to cater to people’s needs and preferences: Amazon, Netflix, Pandora, and Google, among others. The algorithms and recommendation engines that power these online entities have significant influence on our information environment; by gathering snippets of personal data and filtering the “relevant” from “irrelevant,” they decide what we see and filter our options to what we’re most likely to like… and buy. But what if we could turn that technology towards the greater good? What if machines could learn what our capabilities and limitations are, not to nudge our spending habits, but to assist us in navigating our world safely and in seamlessly interacting with the complex systems of daily life?

Adaptive, or dynamic information design (for lack of a better term) is one path towards technology-enabled inclusion and accessibility. The concept is a bit far-fetched, but with the rapid convergence of enough tech trends, it may become more plausible*: Imagine a system that could read your access profile and dynamically generate a heads-up information display with an optimized version of the information you were looking at, tailored exactly to your needs, with, say, big enough text (in your preferred language), sufficient color contrast, and clear direction on what actions are possible for you. This could be driven by a library of evidence-based design principles for controlling visual variables (type, color, size, layout, etc) as well as the design of other multi-sensory information (sound/speech, Braille, touch feedback, etc).

Virtual reality displays already provide a convenient canvas on which to superimpose information, but with the addition of other devices and equipment, multi-sensory features for non-visual use cases might be possible. Some existing technologies are already pointing the way:

  • Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens and augmented reality: personalized information overlay
  • Image recognition software: detection and analysis of information displays
  • Global wifi networks and cloud-based services: proximity sensing, profile transmission, and custom information delivery
  • Apple Watch’s haptic technology: sensory information
  • Voice command and text-to-speech technology: touch/keyboard-free interaction and audio information

Given the current state of the art, the physical apparatus to make these capabilities possible would no doubt be cumbersome to wear and look a little unfashionable, but iterative refinement of such a concept might lead to something more elegant (for comic book fans, the evolution of Iron Man’s armor comes to mind).

So how does information design in the present venture into the realm of “adaptive”?

Bridging the static-dynamic information design divide

Information design is a highly fragmented field, but two broad divisions generally co-exist today: the old “static” world of print and signage and the still-new “dynamic” world of electronic displays and computer-driven experiences; despite the popularization of blended static-dynamic information displays, such as immersive storytelling and online news features fusing both standard articles and analytic tools to “play” with the data, information design practice still clings to the distinction between those who design for pure content presentation (traditional graphic/communication designers) and those who design for interaction (user experience designers, interaction designers, etc). Those on the “static” side sometimes forget how fluid and flexible information has become and what potential that simple fact holds for their work, regardless of what current conventions or tools say you can do. Meanwhile, those on the “dynamic” side sometimes forget the basic human desire for simple, familiar, and un-intimidating experiences that recognize their individuality, forgive mistakes, anticipate hiccups, and offer a clear path to a live person who can help.

Information design that is acutely sensitive to all people’s needs and sufficiently capable of delivering the most optimal experience possible, as in the case of adaptive information design, will rely on a range of skills and roles from design, anthropology, psychology, computer science, and information science, among many others — not the work of a hyper-talented, do-it-all unicorn designer. Both “static” and “dynamic” sides possess complementary expertise to appropriately frame the communication challenge, thoroughly assess the audience, and work toward comprehensive solutions that continuously learn from repeated use.

The dream of a better world and a bright future doesn’t have to be incomplete, biased, or exclusive to select populations. Nor does it have to subscribe to Hollywood’s (or Silicon Valley’s) vision of progress. Information designers have the capacity to shape that future, and not have their role dictated by it, by co-creating a future where addressing physical challenges becomes a priority and where everyone finally feels like they belong.

This paper describes an application of augmented reality for improved situational awareness in combat. Instead of overlays that re-present information “your way,” the system discussed here provides views into different categories of information that are critical for urban warfare situations, like whether an object in view is friendly, hostile, neutral, or unknown.


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.



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…


A Life Less Designed


“What the hell am I doing?” I ask myself on a Sunday morning, half-covered in grass clippings. The weather is warm and immaculate, ideal for a hike or picnic or lazy stroll through town. Instead, here I am clutching my Sears Craftsman line trimmer, dutifully mowing my overgrown lawn. There are blisters forming on my rawhide-gloved hands. I’m sneezing uncontrollably from all the pollen in the air. My legs are sore from the frog-like hopping about to tear weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk. I see my neighbors on their way to brunch (their landscaping is all concrete, no grass) and wave my most neighborly wave. Behind my smile, I’m seething with envy.

My ego tells me I’m beyond this grunt work. I’m a designer, for heaven’s sake! Why spend my free time on mundane chores when I should be free to pursue the finer things, as any cultured, creative person should in this day and age? Would I prefer to scroll through those saved-for-later long articles? Or would I rather enrich my mind with literature, art-making, or a bit of writing? Maybe all I want is to not think at all and enjoy a documentary or TV series, guilt-free? Am I not entitled to these and more choices in the year 2016, rather than feel burdened by antiquated chores?

Despite my ego’s bourgeois indignance, I can’t deny that this yard work is maybe kind of fun. I’m outside, physically active, using muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m taking pride in my handiwork as a home owner: the clean edges where green meets grey, the uniformly level height of grass, and the sense of order restored. I’m in awe of the smallness of insects marching on the ground below and the vastness of the cerulean blue sky above. It’s just me and my natural environment — at least, whatever a semi-suburban residential neighborhood can afford — with little else in between.

The fact that something like yard work can be both annoying and fulfilling is a reflection of the larger issue we face with the nature and quality of progress today. On one hand, many think a better life is one of minimal inconvenience and maximum enjoyment: frictionless experiences, pre-anticipated needs, and adaptive systems that respond to our every desire. Plenty of work has gone into building that idea of “better” through research and investments in everything from motion-sensing bathroom fixtures to voice-activated devices and self-driving cars. If I fully subscribed to that vision, I’d happily welcome any sort of liberation from horticultural busywork. Some clever tech startup could easily capitalize on that “unmet need” by building an outdoor Roomba — an app-controlled grass-trimming drone that could trim and sweep my grass every few weeks. Lost time reclaimed!

But on the other hand, maybe that wasn’t lost time at all. Maybe in eliminating that task I’m actually paying a bigger price: I’m losing a part of my life in which I feel more connected with myself and what’s around me.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the solutionist thinking that pervades discussions of design, technology, and progress overlooks the value of common problems humans might actually need to have in order to retain our human-ness. Cameron Tonkinwise, the Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses this topic in his Medium piece, Contempt by Design: When Empathy turns into Hatred of Everyday Life. Design empathy can be a means of understanding people in order to design for them and with them, but it can also lead to design decisions that work against them. For instance, he describes the typical habit designers have historically fallen into and the consequences of solutionism:

Every time designers notice pain points, obstacles, or even just opportunities for things to happen a little more productively or pleasantly, the outcome is another thing…. Our societies are unsustainable because mass production has allowed designer empathy to go unchecked.

Design, in this sense, is a tool of commercialism: it fuels consumption (and waste) under the guise of making life better. Rather than seek to enrich life by first understanding what a better life really means and how people define it for themselves — before any type of intervention is considered — design, and the players driving it, tend to take any chance to insert themselves into the everyday human narrative. A highly cynical distillation of the current formula in play might look like this:

  1. Crank up the “creative” to spark desire and keep people buying stuff they never thought they needed.
  2. “Innovate” when you hit a sales slump to jolt the market with something new.
  3. Repeat as needed.

More problems arise on another level, when design presumes to know what’s best for all of us and cushions our lives in pseudo-utopian bliss. Tonkinwise counters rampant design solutionism with a call to action for design to seek a deeper understanding of its role in everyday life and even question where it does and doesn’t belong:

This is the greatest danger of design empathy; that its concern for humans and its insight into materiality end up being contempt for all the friction and finitude of everyday life. To counter this we all, but especially designers, must learn to empathize with the activities of everyday life. We must use design thinking not to eradicate all the hardships of everyday life, but rather to find existing everyday pleasures in material practices. We must be prepared to listen to people when they say that they do enjoy doing some mundane tasks. We must accept that not everything needs to be disrupted, that some things need not be changed.

Maintenance activities like doing laundry, washing dishes, and sweeping a floor have a dignity to them, a timelessness, and even philosophical meaning. Accepting them as an essential part of life, just like other human-scale manual activities that have been around for generations, is becoming harder and harder because the apparent benefit of not having to do them (and ease of access to “solutions”) outweighs the deeply-ingrained sense of displeasure attached to them. Especially for those with the means (even more modest means), it is almost unthinkable to do some of these things by one’s own hand any more when it costs relatively little to minimize the problem.

On a personal level, I honestly don’t look forward to every chore, but once I’m engaged in the flow of an activity, the feeling is practically zen-like. Instead of contemplating some other fun thing I could be doing and getting annoyed that I’m not doing it, I try to stay in the present and focus on the task — on how I can perfect the movements and what small hidden lessons I can extract from just becoming absorbed in the moment. My mind sifts through fragments of thoughts generated throughout the day, makes connections, recalls loose threads, and basically catches up with itself. No matter what the task is, there’s a minimum of stuff necessary; save for the grass trimmer and my washer and dryer, it’s usually low-tech, low-end design: a broom, a sponge, a trowel, a dust pan and brush. What’s great about those things is that they are designed to help me do something — they don’t remove me from the equation altogether. And using them is, in a way, part of the fun.

We need to celebrate the joys of a life less designed and protect the necessary boundaries between the collective entity of design-business-technology and human experience. If we continue riding the runaway train of “progress,” if we tacitly agree to the intermediation of every effort, every gesture, every thought with a design “solution” — without making better design decisions for ourselves — what then will be left for us to do? What will be left of us?



Conversations, Not Clicks


For those who’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have noticed the frequent departures from information design and other related topics. Rather than write about what’s popular in conversations of-the-moment and sustain a magazine-like consistency of material I generate, I often follow my curiosity and try to sort through the questions in my mind, wherever they lead. Figuring out what I think and sharing that thinking publicly, however rough or conceptual or unconventional it may be, is something I enjoy, and not for the attention it may attract. In fact, I could count on one hand the few “greatest hits” I’ve had when site traffic has spiked (they’re the Recommended posts listed in the footer). Oh, and there’s also that cancer infographic I did a while back (now removed because of so many reuse requests and misuses). Pretty much everything else falls flat — the introspective pieces, the way off-topic ramblings, the high-level surveys, and the preachy sermons. Very few comments, tweets, or shares.

And that’s okay.

As appealing as it seems to have legions of followers and tons of social media buzz like some folks I follow in my own areas of specialty, those aren’t my measures of success. It’s not even about success. To me, having a blog like this is like participating in a giant conversation where each statement, each thought, has the potential to change another person’s thinking or invite a response that could change mine. In some ways, this is fast becoming outdated, much like throwing a message in a bottle into a vast ocean and waiting for a reply that may never come. Commenting has been on the decline, as social media gestures has taken its place. Conversation is being further squeezed out of the equation with the growing “push” model of publishing via e-mail newsletters. And that’s just it: the notion of putting anything online has radically shifted meaning from when I started my blog about 8 years ago. Online content is a commodity these days, bound up in advertising, marketing, data collection, and analytics. I wonder sometimes if people even read any more when there’s so much available, so little attention, and such an irresistible urge to keep the social sharing engine humming.

Despite the machine-like nature of content creation on the web, it’s fascinating to see how organically it can behave, how the human element never goes away. Interests ebb and flow in cycles: a “big data” peak one moment becomes a trough the next, a wave of pro-brainstorming articles recedes as the counter-argument rises. And the cycle repeats. Still, I keep writing — and scanning the ocean for kindred spirits. Once in a blue moon, I’m surprised by a comment someone posts on my blog or by an exchange that emerges from a comment I post somewhere. On even rarer occasions, those conversations solidify into real connections.

In the end, I’m not too concerned with being liked or earning widespread approval for saying something lots of people agree with or gain value from. I’m happy for the recognition I get, and even happier for the thoughtful, sincere responses I receive from both brand new readers and long-time lurkers. 😉 What matters to me are basic things: learning, finding links between ideas, seeing the world in a different way from someone else’s perspective, and starting a dialogue across all different subjects, not just information design alone. As long as I have thoughts bouncing around my head, and as long as there’s a chance someone out there is listening, I’ll do my best to keep it going.