The Dawn of the Understanding Age

December 20, 2012


Time to shift our priorities from making more information to making sense

I’m officially calling for an end to the Information Age.

For the past 60 years or so, we’ve made outstanding progress with information. Ever since we transformed the nature of information from something fixed and static to something fluid and dynamic, we’ve opened up whole new worlds of opportunity for its creation, transmission, storage and retrieval. We have become highly efficient at producing tools for generating content, establishing platforms for publishing, and designing systems for archiving, searching, and sharing information. The fact that we can now interact with so much information in so many ways using so many different devices (most of them portable) is a staggering achievement. In a sense, this is information’s Golden Age.

But we pay a steep price for all these advancements. We continue to struggle with the growing volume and complexity of what we create. Whole industries have formed for the sole purpose of managing information, from information technology to information science, but these efforts suffer from their own self-perpetuated complexity, like ever-changing standards, elaborate systems design, and cryptic jargon. We now suffer from information overload, information anxiety, infobesity, and other info-ailments. On the flip side, some of us welcome the deluge and become hooked on the steady stream of information available to us, giving rise to the infovore and information addiction. In the case of either too much or not enough information, our attention spans have shrunk, our concentration has become fractured, and our memory has been offloaded to a hard drive somewhere.

Along with these challenges, the quality of information design and delivery has fallen short of people’s real-world needs. We may possess better tools and techniques than ever for presenting data and packaging information, but the results still favor the form of information rather than the function, or as Richard Saul Wurman would put it, the performance of information. We’ve grown too accustomed to the idea of having designed information pieces and online experiences do all the heavy lifting of explaining something, but we overlook the shortcomings of the artifacts we create, placing the burden of figuring it out on an already overloaded audience.

We’ve been too deeply enamored with the technical and technological aspects of information, all the while neglecting to adequately bridge the gaps we’ve created in human understanding.

It’s time to usher in the Understanding Age.

Just like the resurgence of classical learning and ideals in the Renaissance and the triumph of scientific reasoning during the Enlightenment, the Understanding Age will bring about a renewed focus on human needs in communication and a deep appreciation for sensemaking and teaching skills. The key to the Understanding Age will be the adoption of information design thinking skill as an essential universal capability, like math, writing, and logic. Professional information designers won’t be the only ones expected to make sense of data or create organizing structures for content (although their expertise will remain vital to tackling complex problems). We all will need to become better explainers and start taking more responsibility for the way we communicate with each other, regardless of intent, discipline, or medium.

The implications of a widespread consciousness-raising for understanding could be significant. One of the biggest transformations I envision (and hope for) could happen where it’s been long overdue — in those difficult life situations where guidance is hardest to find:

  • Starting and raising a family
  • Dealing with serious illness
  • Coping with loss
  • Surviving and recovering from a natural disaster
  • Launching a new business

(Even without doing an exhaustive analysis, the most understanding-deficient areas of life turn out to be money, health/well-being, and law. Why that is will remain a topic for another post.)

Just imagine: instead of having to plow through scores of books, brochures, websites, and videos or make countless phone calls to family, friends, and “customer service” lines when you need help with, say, a healthcare issue, all the support you need could be available in one place or through one point of contact who would take the time to explain everything to you clearly. The information you’re looking for could be available precisely at the point of need, never too far out of reach. And none of it would seem unusual — it would just be the way things are done. Does this sound like an episode of the Twilight Zone?

I could list many more examples of what an Understanding Age could bring about for education, business, government, and society, and build a better case for such a movement, but the benefits are readily apparent. If information design thinking became widely embraced and practiced, we might solve for many of the social and economic challenges we face today.

The idea of an Understanding Age might be too aspirational, but some of the groundwork for this vision has already been laid. Information design, information architecture, and data visualization have grown in popularity and have slowly evolved into more recognized practices. The infographics wave, for better or worse, has raised awareness of information design by pushing it into the mainstream. Visual thinking as an enabler of understanding continues to gain traction. The continued popularity of design thinking and the growing formalization of user experience as a discipline have both helped to make user-centered design a priority for many businesses and organizations. Gradually, the importance of more mindful communication and the desire for skill-building to practice it effectively will catch on.

At a small scale, some basic principles for everyday communication can help make a difference:

  • Challenging policies and practices that deliberately conceal and confuse (a big one!)
  • Thinking systemically about what you’re communicating and how it fits in an ecosystem of touchpoints
  • Distancing yourself from your content and assuming a beginner’s point of view
  • Weeding out ambiguities in your language, like acronyms and technical expressions
  • Diagnosing barriers to understanding through questions and feedback from your audience
  • Encouraging more direct person-to-person dialogue, instead of device-to-device exchanges over email and text
  • Being patient when someone needs more explanation

and, most important of all

  • Never assuming anything

If we can’t start the next chapter in history right away, we can at least try to make each other’s lives a litte easier.


The Box of Digital Wonder

June 16, 2012


We’re migrating more of our lives onto online platforms, but how much are we leaving behind?

For ages, humans have relied on artifacts to convey emotions, experiences, beliefs, and histories. Museums such as the Met in New York are a testament to the enduring power of the physical object across all world cultures. Terra cotta figurines, bronze weapons, gold and inlaid stone jewelry, silk tapestries, and other handicrafts are imbued with meaning both intimately personal and timelessly universal. The narratives change over time, but the impulse to create stories through handmade objects has remained the same.

Until recently.

Over the past couple decades, the idea of employing craft to transmit culture has waned in popularity. Once commonplace “hobbies” such as embroidering, quilting, crocheting, knitting, and woodworking are now viewed as old-fashioned novelties practiced by people called “makers.” Even scrapbooking is becoming a dying art, despite the infusion of commercial support from Martha Stewart and Michael’s arts & crafts stores.

We no longer really make anything — we only collect, consume, and eventually dispose of mass-produced goods. In a sense, we have eliminated craft and storytelling from our modern lives to make room for the activities that keep us going (earning money, staying healthy, etc) and keep us entertained (watching television, listening to music, playing sports, etc). But what we actually do create for ourselves and share with others has taken on a new form and meaning.

To borrow a concept I heard during a talk between authors James Gleick and John Freeman at Cooper Union, we live in a world of atoms and bits, but with each passing day, we are translating more of our lives into bits while keeping fewer atoms around. Gone are the days of handwritten letters and postcards from far away friends we rediscover in an old shoebox; electronic mail keeps us all in close touch now and saves us from unsightly clutter. Never again will we find pressed flowers and notes tucked in the pages of an old hardcover; digital books and eReaders allow us to carry any book(s) we want anywhere we go without the cumbersome weight of paper. Forget about those mix tapes and mix CD’s from “back in the day”; MP3′s free music from the bounds of such delicate media and still sound crystal clear play after play. And (saddest of all), say goodbye to the wallet-sized photographs of beloved family members with inscriptions on the back; a simple scan or digital photo will preserve your memories for years to come in a super-compact JPEG format.

The problem is not that we are using technology more in more facets of our modern lives, but that we’re leaving something behind from our pre-digital lives: the tactility of human experience. Nowhere is the impact of digitization more apparent than in the transmutation of the photograph from a physical and chemical product into a fluid piece of information, a collection of bits that can be compressed, uploaded, downloaded, copied, and, of course, digitally printed out in vast quantities at virtually any size (if there are enough dots per inch crammed in). What was once a keepsake, a memento of something special is now a glowing array of red, green, and blue pixels on a screen. Our photographic memories are now steps removed from the touch of a human hand; only with a click of a mouse or a finger tap on a glass screen can we summon our treasured images into view. When the image file is closed and our computer display goes dark, our pictures occupy storage space on a dead metal and plastic box — whether it’s the hard drive in our own computer or a hosted server somewhere unknown to us.

Social media have reshaped our cultural relationship to artifacts and images to an astonishing degree. We are building a new museum on the Internet, wing by virtual wing. Flickr, the biggest online image sharing platform with about 100 million uploads a day, has been eclipsed by social networks that allow stories to be told rather than illustrated. Facebook has become much more than an online scrapbook. It is a repository of interlinked memories where the entire lifetimes and legacies of its users will ultimately be preserved. With the growing use of mobile phones as cameras, apps such as Instagram offer a variety of vintage effects mimicking traditional photographic techniques, thus blurring the line between authentic and artificial. The share-ability and customization of a moment in real time is all that matters.

While Flickr and Facebook retain more of the link between the picture taker and the picture, Tumblr and Pinterest largely down-play attribution to encourage the creation of moodscapes and synthetic stories from whim-driven collections. Photographs in this context amount to little more than raw material for digital pin-up boards, from which others can repost in their own personal gallery of cool. The more an image is reposted, the further it travels from its origin, the more it becomes a commodity. (That’s not to mention the many ways images are being remixed and manipulated to create new and radically different meanings.)

Even the gestures we make in these and other social networks can be reduced to the simplest and most bit-like messages: a “share,” a “like,” a “+1,” or a retweet. These modes of engagement require a minimum of thought and effort, yet they have now become the currency of a still flourishing digital culture. Continuous life sharing is an attention economy of its own, where even the act of participation is a form of data by-product to be harvested and analyzed for commercial benefit. Everything we do online, and even offline, ultimately reduces to information.

With each passing generation, traditions fade, technologies go obsolete, and history repackages itself. A lossy compression of culture occurs about every fifty years — information is cut out, averaged, recompiled, and reformatted. The end result of this continuous data optimization is a vaguely familiar picture of a reality we once experienced, but not necessarily an accurate one. The closer we look, the less evidence we will find of ourselves. And the harder it will become to track down and access the genuine articles that gave dimension to our history.

Our computer interfaces continue to carry the legacy of the physical world, from buttons and dials to leather textures and animated page turns, but only for nostalgia’s sake; our concept of making and the tools of production have already transferred over to the computer desktop, where we now launch applications, shuffle through windows, and swipe/tap/click our way across the informationscape. Before long, the mental models that span analog and digital will break, and our tech-saturated reality will outdate the conceptual crutches built into our operating systems. Imagine a day when folders and documents only exist on a screen.

In the process of going medium-less, we will have poured our lives into boxes within boxes. All the wonder, meaning, and discovery that ephemera provide will gradually be lost to the ages, with the only backup copy surviving in our living memory.

10 Challenges Facing Information Design Today

March 2, 2012

When I first set foot on my path as an information designer, I never thought the field would explode in popularity as it has today. Where there was once a drought of information and resources on the subject, there is now a flood of content overtaking the landscape of information design. But this surge of interest has come at a price.

As I wrote back in June of 2010, information design — broadly speaking — does not make sense. In the time since I wrote that article, little has changed. To some, there is no problem at all with the state of information design today (if they even recognize that there is a “state of information design”). Instead, it’s an open playing field, a new frontier where anyone and everyone has the opportunity to participate, create, innovate, and capitalize on whatever they wish. The only real concern is how long the “infoviz” party will last. For others such as myself, what is really at stake is the integrity and future of the information design profession, but without clearly spelling out the main challenges that need to be addressed today, blazing the way forward will prove a very difficult task.

I have boiled down my observations of information design today to ten key challenges, with some overlap:

1. Overproduction

There is actually too much being published and broadcast under the guise of representing or explaining information design, and not enough being done to synthesize and illuminate. Books, news articles, blogs, videos, events, and other content outlets are delivering not just a higher volume of information but conflicting information as well (for instance, some say information design is fairly new, while others maintain it is actually not new and stretches back centuries, even millennia). This cacophony of signals makes it difficult for anyone — from the aspiring designer to the executive seeking information design help — to make heads or tails of it all.

2. Misunderstanding

As long as the language and concepts surrounding information design remain ambiguous and undefined, no progress can be made to advance the field forward. Origins of terms and practices, as well as relationships between different visualization disciplines need to be better understood and mapped. Nathan Yau touched on this issue in a September 2011 post on Flowing Data, but it surfaced little more than shared agreement that clarity is lacking (my comments appear here and here).

3. Undervalue

The value of information design as a means of addressing the growing scale and complexity of problems today is still not fully recognized. The thinking skills and frameworks involved in information design work can be applied to a host of challenges beyond more conventional, relatively well-defined projects such as website architectures, wayfinding systems, and data displays. If this potential for broader and more strategic application were realized, other challenges may be solved: “information designer” might well become an accepted role within companies, demand may drive more formalized programs of study, and the public perception of information design may be improved.

4. Fragmentation

No professional or academic boundary exists around the collective activities and disciplines that comprise information design. Whether or not there should even be an all-encompassing category is itself a controversial question. Nevertheless, without true solidarity amongst professionals or common ground on which to establish professional standards and build academic curricula, the information design space will remain a free-for-all and confusion will continue. Organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication and the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) have done much to build unity and community as well as advance dialogue, but much work still remains.

5. Scarcity

They may assume different job titles and offer different services, but collectively, skilled information design practitioners are few in number and remain largely outside of the spotlight. This shortage may be the result of a combination of factors, including lack of formalization of the profession, lack of training and programs of study, and even self-misidentification (that is, people who do information design but whose job title or responsibilities position them differently). If there is no clear delineation and sufficient recognition of the profession, it may never flourish.

6. Amnesia

Lack of memory is hurting the legacy of information design. In the absence of an actual, formal history, relative newcomers tend to jump off from the most recent and most popularized figures like Richard Saul Wurman or even Ben Fry, while the forefathers and foremothers (Joseph Priestly, Florence Nightingale, and Herbert Bayer to name a few) end up marginalized or forgotten altogether. A deeper appreciation of information design’s roots might inform how to tackle the challenges of the present and help lay the groundwork for the future.

7. Misappropriation

Marketing infographics are everywhere these days, serving as far-too-convenient traffic magnets for virtually every kind of website. Instead of creating genuine value for their audience, marketing infographics employ all available graphic devices to lure attention under the pretense of credibility. Proponents of marketing infographics tout expertise in the area of infographic design or even prescribe do’s and don’ts while side-stepping an entire swath of history and professional practice dedicated to advancing that very work. And while the debate against this phenomenon hovers at the level of execution and form versus function, the bigger, untouched issue here is the preservation of the central purpose of information design: to help people make sense of their world. Unfortunately, the marketing infographic gold rush is far from over, but a responsibility must exist among information designers to stand up for their profession.

8. Commercialization

For several years now, the infoviz/dataviz trend has become infused in popular culture; the influence of the information design aesthetic is everywhere, from movie sequences to music videos to art exhibits. Although the intent is often tongue-in-cheek, and may even indirectly promote information design, there is still a risk of diluting, muddling, or flat-out mocking a field that has yet to really define and take ownership of itself. News features and special issues on information design are becoming more common, particularly in the graphic design world, but the tendency is towards visual appeal and surface-level scans over deep investigation (examples include Grafik magazine’s April 2010 issue, Eye Magazine’s Winter 2010 issue, and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog posts on infographics). Public interaction with information design should not be limited to superficial treatments. News outlets such as the New York Times are making an effort to dig deeper into information design and even set best practices with their infographics, but a greater counterbalance of instructive resources and knowledge is still needed. (Academic-level publications on information design do exist, such as the Information Design Journal and the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping, although there is little crossover of insight into more mainstream channels).

9. Commodification

Despite their inherent usefulness, tools and technology have exerted too strong an influence on information design. The speed of production and limitless palette of stylistic options afforded by current software overshadow the time-intensive work of research, analysis, sketching and iteration. Mastery of Photoshop and Illustrator does not translate to information design skill, but from a business perspective, amateurism may potentially reshape the marketplace of design services. Process — and skill — should precede product, not the other way around.

10. De-humanization

Information design has become too closely associated with the production of design artifacts and less with human outcomes. At its core, information design is about bridging gaps in understanding and enabling sound decision-making and action. The information designer’s job is to achieve those ends in the most effective way possible, or as Edward Tufte states in this excellent presentation, using “whatever it takes.” Short of being present with someone at the point of need, a designer must push his or her skills as far as necessary to ensure that a concept is clearly understood, a task is accomplished, or a goal is achieved. Solutions may be designed on the computer, but they originate from understanding people.

There are probably more challenges than I’ve identified here, but I hope the message is clear. A critical look at the big picture of information design has been missing for too long. It’s time for information design to make sense of itself from the inside out. If more professionals, academics, businesses and others in this space invested collective effort to fix the present, a promising future may be possible.


The World Can Change Design

September 25, 2011

Finally, here’s the conclusion to my four-part rant, picking up from The Boundaries of Design

Products are passé. Brands are boring. Websites are wearisome. Many designers are trying to break out of the mold of conventional design and tackle bigger challenges. Corporate clients don’t cut it any more. They want their work to have meaning and impact in the world. They want to make a difference. But how? What kind of impact can design really have in the world? Should we even think of design in that way?

Most design schools teach skills and tools to fulfill market demand for “traditional” designers around whom an economy is already built — architects, product designers, web designers, et cetera. The reigning model is to create more goods and services and stuff to support a standard of living that developed countries such as the U.S. have fought to establish and preserve.* Everybody from the unseen overseas manufacturers to the retail superstores to the ad-laden consumer magazines knows we need newer, better, nicer stuff in our homes, on our bodies, and in our culture. Design exists to address these human needs and to drive commerce through a continuous cycle of fueling and satisfying desire.**

Incrementally, design schools and the design industry are broadening the scope of design’s capacity for doing good, though well within the purview of traditional design. Many are rethinking unsustainable practices as they relate to the production, commercialization, consumption, and disposal of physical design artifacts. But addressing environmental concerns only makes for more green design, not “world-changing” design. While that may ease the guilt of buying more stuff that may harm the world and reduce the waste we generate, the consumerist status quo will likely remain unchanged.

Design has increasingly been moving into the social space, further nudging the boundaries of traditional design’s reach. Some designers are directing their efforts toward supporting non-profit ventures by doing design work for existing charities and organizations, as has been the case for many years. Others are launching initiatives themselves to tackle very specific areas of interest (Architecture for Humanity is a great, highly-visible example of this). Again, while tremendous good is being done, design’s impact is still limited to what it can directly affect, whether it’s increasing the public’s awareness or understanding of social issues or helping to provide communities with basic necessities for survival.

Meanwhile at the macro-level of world problems, massive change is sweeping across the world. Regimes are falling, economies are crumbling, jobs are vanishing, and insecurity still prevails. The cost of living and staying alive continues to skyrocket, while quality of life is declining. Cities are aging, infrustructures deteriorating, capacities stretched to the max. Even natural events have become more unpredictable and more destructive, as we saw with the Japan tsunami and more recently with Hurricane Irene. What we’re experiencing now goes beyond independent, isolated events. It’s a network of revolutions — a wholesale paradigm shift in how the world fundamentally works.

Can design solve problems of this magnitude? I don’t think so. Design was never designed to handle large-scale complexity, and for all their best intentions, many designers are incapable of bridging the gap between the work they do and the systemic change that needs to happen in the world. Even the falsely-named “design thinking” as an approach for understanding and solving systemic problems falls short in the face of global turmoil. However, at a strategic level, designers can help map complex situations and draw meaning from data to enable different stakeholders to make sense of a problem (more on this in a future post).

Design alone can’t and won’t change the world, and if you read my last post, I think design actually needs to get over itself and make sense of its own mess first. Contrary to what some in the design cheerleader press like Co.Design think, design isn’t living up to the hype of being “such an important discipline in today’s world.” And I’m sorry to say that “integration, rather than raw technology” has not become “the pressing problem of our world” — complex problems tangled inside other complex problems have become the pressing problem of our world. It takes a lot of different people pooling serious brainpower and resources to even make a dent in that.

I think we should stop celebrating design as the hero and bring our notions of design’s role in the world back down to earth. I know that might not sit well with many designers, but considering the ego trip of the past 10 years or so, it’s about time design was reacquainted with reality and what kind of difference design can actually make.

To close out my rant, I’ve taken a stab at drafting a pseudo design manifesto to sum up my own principles for design in, for, and with the real world:

  1. Design is an enabler of change in the world, not the cause or source.
  2. Designers should be facilitators of dialogue, collaboration, and understanding, not simply creators or producers of design artifacts.
  3. Designers are problem solvers by nature and should be skillful as such, but they should not presume to be able to solve every problem.
  4. Designers should provide greater clarity and honesty in services they are qualified to offer.
  5. Designers should connect closely and directly with those they serve.
  6. Design’s impact should be genuine impact, regardless of whether it’s hard or soft.
  7. Design journalism of all types should be practiced responsibly when covering design and “change-making.”
  8. Design schools and programs should be proactive in orienting newer generations of designers to be service-minded (not to be confused with “service design”).
  9. Design should be an inclusive process that involves more than just designers.
  10. Designers should receive recognition not for the aesthetic appeal of their solutions but for effectiveness and impact. Isn’t that the point?

So what do you think? If you’re a designer reading this, what’s your take on the whole “design saving the world” phenomenon? If you’re not a designer, do you think design can tackle big, world-sized challenges?



* I realize that’s a problematic statement. Is it better to say that design is an enabler of the “American,” “Western” or “northern” way of life? Am I digging a deeper hole for myself?

** Another problematic statement, which is directed toward design for advertising and marketing specifically. Design is a big, diverse field, but the most visible and influential aspects of design are manifest in selling stuff.

In Praise of the Design Underdog

June 23, 2011

The rant continues from Over Design, in all its crudeness…

At one time, graphic design was about as sexy as chimney sweeping. It was messy, unglamorous, and quite labor intensive, even as technology afforded the profession new tools and enhanced methods of production over time. It was truly an art, a craft, and a science all in one. Those who chose the path of the designer likely did so out of sheer necessity and market demand, as graphic arts and printing services went hand-in-hand, although there were probably those innately drawn to graphic design work as well. There was no fame or fortune in it — just a job, really — and if one got to flex their artistic and creative skills while doing it, all the better.

More recently, the designer’s skillset and toolset have been radically simplified and consolidated thanks to the computer, so there’s less craft involved. Without the burden of rubber cement and proportion wheels, designers could produce more work faster and were thus freed up to explore the more self-expressive side of graphic design work. So began the rise of design culture — design by and for designers — and the emergence of design as a lifestyle.

Becoming a designer these days is essentially a socialization process. To really make it in design, you need to start by going to the right school, following a legacy system of design education (that is, become a student of so-and-so who studied under so-and-so, ad nauseum), and really designing yourself from head to toe with the right specs, the right wardrobe, the right gadgets, and the right social life. Once you graduate, you can plug right into the professional network that your design school affords you. From there you ply your trade among the top shops, producing killer, award-winning “creative” for deep-pocketed clients. You gradually ascend the ranks, annual after annual, conference after conference, until you find yourself feeding into the very system that made you, spawning the next generation of aspiring designers.

Of course, it’s unfair to make such sweeping generalizations about designers according to some chic urban design stereotype popularized by the design press. The spectrum of designers is far more diverse than that. I want to shift the focus away from the spotlight of design culture and specifically focus on the unsung designer who carries on the tradition and the spirit of the early designers, quietly toiling away in the shadows: the design underdog.

Here is a short profile of the design underdog:

  • Went to a non-design school to study design and gain exposure to a broad range of disciplines and intellectual pursuits
  • Learns the tools and techniques of design inside and out, often spending long hours at the computer mastering key commands and shortcuts
  • Loves typography, but disinterested in fonts (there is a difference)
  • Loves design history, but bored by design celebrity (also a difference there)
  • Irritated by “show and tell” design lectures and the schmoozing that goes with them
  • Tends to work in lesser-known agencies, in-house design departments, and print shops
  • Delights in challenging work that has impact and practical value, even if it might never grace the pages of a design annual
  • Works long hours to get the client presentation done right while others just get the job done and go home
  • More interested in client recognition than peer recognition through design competitions
  • Often spends more time trying to understand a problem and what the client needs than on the graphic design of the solution and whether it will look cool
  • Makes little to no effort to assume the designer look (often can’t afford it or the workplace doesn’t call for it)

Design underdogs do the dirty work of figuring stuff out, making things work. They see the job through from start to finish. They put the client first, and reflect that commitment in every aspect of their work. They keep trying until they nail it — even if it means occasional late nights or skipping some social event. They care above all about doing the work right.

The point here isn’t to just shift the spotlight to the underdogs and place them on a pedestal for all their hard work and dedication while spiting everyone else. Not at all. It’s that, on some level, all designers should aspire to be the underdogs. If design is now a navel-gazing profession that sees the world through itself, then it’s time we invert that model and see ourselves as the world sees us and use that perspective to frame our work and our role in the world. The public perception of design should be less glossy and superficial, more textured and deep. The value of design should be that it doesn’t just make you look better — it helps you live better and do better as a human being, organization, or society. Designers’ priority should be to deliver on that promise.

More to come in the next post: The Boundaries of Design

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