Rational Thinking Made Tangible

March 31, 2014

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that information design work is as much a process of reasoning and investigation as it is an activity of pure design decision-making and production. In the earliest stage of my career, I thought information design was only about making graphics that put facts and figures in a clear, understandable format. I assumed that “clear” and “understandable” meant employing graphic techniques like bold color coding, ample white space, good typography, and descriptive illustration. My design education introduced me to the formal principles and standard guidelines for doing design work, like color theory and grid systems, along with the time-honored maxims like “less is more” and “if you can’t make it bigger, make it red.” I believed I had all the ingredients and the tools to do proper information design work, with a generous dose of ego thrown in.

But the more I actually did the work and the more exposure I had to different challenges, the more gaps I uncovered in my own “expertise.” If something made sense or triggered an “aha!”, the graphic designer in me attributed the success primarily to design as I understood it — the skillful arrangement of elements on a page — and little else. What I didn’t fully acknowledge was the “why” behind information design — why does that particular arrangement of elements work. And what do “clear” and “understandable” really mean?

What makes information design work?

The answer to that question stems from a widely-circulated quote attributed to Edward Tufte, from his book Visual Explanations:

Good information design is clear thinking made visible.*

What immediately strikes me about this definition is the order of ideas: clear thinking precedes visualization. It’s a simple point, but a critical one when discussing foundational aspects of information design. The ability to reason and apply rigorous logic to understanding-related challenges is what enables the effective design of information, in any form. In practice, I think “clear thinking made visible” could broadly refer to a continuum of activities:

  • applying a knowledge of principles and rules behind systems to making sense of situations
  • creating and using frameworks for organizing content (thoughts, ideas, data, text, etc)
  • designing interfaces for those frameworks using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques (To clarify, I’m using the word “interface” loosely to refer to visual, aural, spatial, tactile, and maybe even gustatory and olfactory means of accessing and interacting with information, not just technology-based interfaces.)

There’s a lot to unpack in those three bullets, perhaps in future posts. For now, I’m mainly interested in reframing information design to account for the bigger, invisible picture that happens in the “pre-visual” or “pre-artifact” stages. What I hope to see, sooner rather than later, is a shift away from the narrow graphic design-centric perspective that has hindered understanding and growth of the field and towards a cognition-centric perspective that embraces the full scope and potential of what information design is and does below the surface.

With that in mind, I propose a revision of Tufte’s quote to something like this:

Effective information design is rational thinking made tangible.

There are three key words here:

Effective: Given the ever-expanding range of stuff passing as information design these days, it would seem necessary to distinguish works as effective or ineffective at enabling understanding, rather than simply “good,” which has its own subjective meaning. The word “effective” may also promote a greater focus on how information design functions holistically, rather than just how it looks or how it works alone.

Rational: Saying “rational” instead of “clear” thinking helps put a finer point on the type of thinking involved in information design — thinking that subscribes to reason; “clarity” alone may only suggest that thoughts are distinct and well-defined, complete statements, but they may lack any basis in logic.

Tangible: Information design can take many forms once it has passed through the conceptual, “figuring out” stages. The word “tangible” need not only refer to objects or artifacts but to those things that can be experienced directly.

Information design has a long way to go before it will break free from conventional notions of what it is and can — or can’t — be. Greater awareness of the upstream information design process is necessary, as are required studies in cognitive science and logic. Understanding the brain and how it works, from the theoretical to the practical levels, should be the next wave in information design education and practice, not more overemphasis on filling our design toolkit and producing dazzling outputs.

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*The full quote is “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” After briefly Googling the quote for other instances of its use, I came across what could be its inspiration, by Bill Wheeler: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” It isn’t surprising that both writing and information design can be described in the same way.


Change the Conversation

January 28, 2014

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I’ve never been much of a talker. As much as I enjoy rich, far-ranging conversations, at heart I’m a quiet recluse who prefers silence to chit-chat. Dialogue is great and necessary, but there is a point where talk must translate into action.

Looking back on the content I’ve read over the past year, a good portion of it is commentary about some problem or situation that needs to change, but there’s little indication that any action will follow to bring about change. Twitter often feels like writing on the water — as soon as ideas are broadcast (critiques, praise, and everything in between), they either ripple outward or vanish downstream. Blog posts have a sedimentary quality, as new or recycled material settles on top of old, day after day. And while books and journal articles are great, at the end of the day they’re just static knowledge containers. These days, it feels like the only call to action is to consume more content or struggle to keep up with it. What is all of that content for?

As I suggested in my last post, information design is drowning in chatter. There is so much discussion about infographics, data displays, and dazzling visualizations that the hard work of defining and giving more structure to information design as a formal discipline is being neglected. In my own blog, I acknowledge that there’s a considerable gap between what I say and what I actually do. I complain about the state of information design and visualization repeatedly — where there’s confusion, what challenges exist, what could be done better — but I recognize I’ve done little to change the situation beyond helping clients understand the full value of information design. Some soon-to-be-launched ventures will help me practice what I preach and catapult some words and ideas into reality.

The Web is an amazing platform for self-expression, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing, but it’s up to us to step away from our computers, put down our devices, and engage in the world. We need to get better at applying all the knowledge we absorb and all tools at our disposal towards finding and creating solutions to the problems that sorely need attention.

I want 2014 to be the year where we spend a little less time “curating conversations” from the comfort of our computer screens and more time getting our hands dirty in the messy, unglamorous work of sensemaking. Not all of that work will be tweet-able, “like”-able, or Instagram-able, but it will matter, however big or small the effort is.

5 Information Design & Visualization Action Areas for 2014

  1. Mapping Context: The understanding domain, which encompasses the language, people, practices, scholarship, literature, and other components of information design and visualization, is constantly evolving, but it’s still very difficult to see the map of this territory. Some may think that it’s futile to define boundaries and set definitions because of that perpetual flux, but without even a conceptual representation of a space that is occupied and shaped by so many different fields and perspectives, there can be no understanding among the people and groups that call that place home, nor can newcomers and “outsiders” get their bearings. Maybe once we have a sense of what we all mean by information design and visualization and start to mean the same fundamental thing, we can better contextualize what we do for others in their terms and collectively help make sense of the world.
  2. Making Connections: Richard Saul Wurman says that you only learn something in relation to what you already know (in a talk he gave many years ago in NYC, he described his personal frustration with the unfamiliar: “How can I put some velcro on this shit?”). I think we all could do a better job of forging connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, instead of constantly pursuing the “new” and “different” under the guise of trendiness or “innovation.” That means doing more to help people understand what we all do, whether we’re data visualization people, news infographics people, wayfinding people, information architects, etc. How many of us have a crisp, clear, one-sentence description of our work that many people can understand and relate to?  In our daily work, that means reducing the scale and apparent complexity of the unfamiliar into human terms. One great example of this I found recently is the Dictionary of Numbers, which makes obscure numbers more concrete and tangible. The potential for this type of tool is immense.
  3. Expanding Community: There are many different, highly specialized communities within information design and visualization, but they don’t seem to talk much to one another. Maybe it’s me and my lack of history or possibly limited view of things, but I still don’t understand the divisions between, say, information design and information architecture communities, or information design and data visualization communities. When I peer into each little “world” encapsulated in their respective community organization sites and Twitter conversations, I see vibrant discussion and the occasional mention of a neighboring field or overlapping community, but I don’t often see deliberate efforts to bridge across to those neighbors and expand communities (unless you consider open calls to participate in conferences with broad categories or comment fields on blog posts active invitations). We all can be territorial for a variety of reasons, and the thought of extending a hand of fellowship towards foreign “tribes” may seem uncomfortable to some, but related to the first two points above, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. HelpMeViz is among the most promising communities I’ve seen recently that doesn’t simply celebrate shared interest in data visualization — it welcomes productive discussion around data visualization projects needing input. More physical and online platforms for teaching and guidance in this still fuzzy domain are sorely needed.
  4. Considering Consequences: One of the biggest ongoing problems affecting the perception and understanding of information design and visualization is the glut of (mostly bad) “infographics” and their sensationalistic promotion. It’s old news that marketing and graphic design have misappropriated the form and function of visual information displays to suit aesthetic and commercial interests, but the consequence is that information design and visualization are becoming too closely and too narrowly associated with empty, unintelligible, and irrelevant illustrations of facts and figures and artistic or technical experiments that serve only their creators. The reality is that those more expressive outputs won’t go away. Some argue that they are necessary elements or “disruptors” of the larger visualization ecosystem. Still, there still needs to be a clearer delineation between what is playful and what is serious. I would go so far as to distinguish what is fake from what is real. Information design and visualization, at their core, deal with enabling understanding and informing action, and we need to recognize work that serves that purpose — in both practical and meaningful ways. And we need to emphasize that information design and visualization span far more challenges than just making pictures of data and far more outputs and outcomes than infographics and data visualization alone, contrary to what blogs and magazine sites may say. We have more than enough “infographics” that leave us thinking “so what?” or “huh?”. It’s time to show that information design and visualization can — and do — make a real difference in the world.
  5. Championing Clarity: It’s a simple point, but one that is easily forgotten: we all can and should do more to make life easier for ourselves and others in the ways we interact and communicate with each other. Being a practitioner of any sort in information design and visualization should mean that an understanding sensibility is “always on” and a part of everyday life — not just when a project or client demands it. Let’s speak in a way that everyone can understand, and not assume others share our same lexicon. Let’s listen and take time to truly understand what others say and express, so we can respond in meaningful ways. Let’s slow down and cross one understanding challenge at a time, instead of jumping to conclusions about what a solution or answer should be. Let’s start simple when we’re explaining something, visually, verbally or both, so we don’t leave anyone behind. And let’s share our skill and expertise to help others, even in small ways, make clarity a habit.

It’s already the end of January, and there’s lots of work to be done. I hope to see more positive, constructive effort in 2014, as well as some fresh ideas and approaches to the areas I’ve listed. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates…


The Real Meaning of Information Design

November 29, 2013

real-info-design

Will we ever dig our way through all this information design content and hit the bedrock beneath?

We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


The Headlamp

October 30, 2013

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One year ago, Hurricane Sandy swept through the northeast, bringing strong winds, rain, and a powerful storm surge that sent water levels higher than any in recent memory in the NY-NJ area. I never thought that a once safe neighborhood (my neighborhood) could transform into a disaster area overnight. But feelings of loss and vulnerability gave way to determination to undo the damage, to return to normal. As soon as the floodwaters had receded, it was time to begin the long, hard work of cleanup and reconstruction, which still remains unfinished in many parts even today.

Thinking back on my experience after the flood, I am grateful for all the things that helped me get through it all. Family, friends, neighbors and aid volunteers provided support and basic necessities like a place to stay, a hot meal, and occasional power from a portable generator to charge my phone and stay connected to the outside world (which had felt more distant than ever). The mostly mild weather and being physically capable of working made a huge difference as well. But there is one thing that I am especially glad I had during the “darkest” period post-Sandy: my Energizer headlamp.

I remember buying it several years ago, after using a friend’s extra head lamp during a camping and hiking trip in New Hampshire. I was astonished that such a simple invention — an LED flashlight with a headband — could be so invaluable, and so much more useful than an ordinary handheld flashlight in situations where activities needed to be done in the dark. At about $14 and powered by three AAA batteries, the headlamp seemed a worthwhile addition to my collection of tools and safety supplies. The multiple brightness settings and tilt-able lamp seemed handy at the time, but I had no idea how useful they would be until the need arose.

For six days after the hurricane waters receded, my entire neighborhood was without power. My daily “work” routine was to wake at dawn, walk home from a nearby relative’s house where I was staying, and haul out bag after bag of wet garbage until just before dusk. The only light available to me came through small windows and was barely enough to work with, so my headlamp had to provide enough illumination to see what I was doing. At night, my headlamp would guide me along my walk back and even through the house when candles weren’t enough. Amazingly, with so much constant use, not once did the light grow dim, nor did the batteries need changing.

Much has improved since that time, and I am glad to finally be back to normal — a little wiser and a little more cautious, for sure. Getting here today was the result of many efforts working together. It took the help of federal and local agencies along with charities like the American Red Cross to coordinate the large-scale relief effort and mobilize volunteers and aid right after the storm. It also took the work of local sanitation workers and repair crews to clear away damaged material and rebuild (hopefully) better and safer. On a personal level, it took persistence, physical and mental energy, and the help of something as simple as a headlamp to climb out of the darkness.


Public Space

September 3, 2013

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Sometimes thoughts need the right space to happen, the right space to live in. We may choose to distance ourselves from one dimension of our reality to experience another, to have new ideas or gain perspective. At other times, life decides which side of reality we must confront, and so our thinking conforms (or resists).

In this moment, I am writing from Washington Square Park. My thoughts are in many places — work, home, past, future — but right now, I’m immersed in the ecosystem of the park. The weather is pleasant, the heat of summer mellowed to a comfortable level — and a signal that fall may not be far. NYU students are back from summer break, or just starting their college experience. Old friends are reconnecting, new friendships are forming. Technology is everywhere: students smiling at text messages, calling family back home, or working deadpan on their laptops, tourists shooting photos or videos of the whole scene, and me, typing this into my iPhone. Jazz music, performed only by a sax player and drummer, sets the perfect backdrop to this afternoon confluence of people and place, a shared sequence of moments in a small but timeless patch of NYC.

One moment, hidden among so many parallel realities, struck me this afternoon. As I finished my lunch, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a furry caterpillar begin a perilous journey across a heavily-trafficked walking path leading to the fountain in the center of the park. I looked around and realized I was the only one watching him attempt to cross. Slowly he (or she?) inched forward, arching then flattening his fuzzy brown body. He barely made it three feet, out of the ten feet he needed to cover, before an unsuspecting student clipped his head with his bright white sneaker. In one final arching motion, the caterpillar’s journey ended, and all the while, the scene continued. Friends laughed, dogs walked beside their owners, a breeze flowed through the trees, and the jazz played on. It wasn’t long before he “blended” into the ground, flattened by the waves of footfalls up and down the path.

Life goes on, indeed, but it mustn’t go unnoticed. I don’t know the caterpillar’s greater purpose in the grand scheme of things, unless he was destined to become a butterfly and start a butterfly effect. Where did he come from? Where did he think he was going? Why did I just see that? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and looking for deeper meaning, but I can’t ignore the significance of that moment.

I come to this park, as I do other public places, to see my world differently — but really, I come to see the world. In fact, I always see many different worlds, macro and micro, overlapping, colliding, coexisting. In the space of a lunch break, in the space of a public park in NYC, many things can happen if you just tune into the worlds around you.


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