Tag: culture


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.


The Future of Design History


The future is so now. Everywhere you turn, there’s some book, blog post, or conference about “THE FUTURE OF something-or-other” these days. The faster tech progress moves, the more impatient people become for the next new thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with envisioning the future and imagining possibilities for what could be. Meaningful progress depends on it. But there is something deeply wrong when we forget about everything that got us here or, worse yet, have no clue it ever even existed.

Recognizing the value of design history and truly learning from it is a loaded topic. It would take more than a lowly blog post to address topics such as the gaps in design history, the underuse of primary source material in education, and the false idolization of influential figures in design history. What interests me right now is the perception and role of design history in an internet- and social-media-driven world. Two interlinked forces are at work shaping design history — for better and worse:

  1. The design explosion: As the popularity of design increases (never mind which design we’re talking about) and the demand for designers and design skills grows (never mind specifics, again), what design is has evolved in response to these changes. More diverse voices outside of design are shaping and “curating” conversations about design, new players are redefining the landscapes of design education and practice, and new applications of design are gaining more recognition among the more traditional products and services. However, with so much activity around design, it becomes more challenging to make sense of design and find information about design history that is accurate and useful.
  2. The digital revolution: There’s no denying the speed and scale of change still happening from the analog-to-digital transition. Design continues to explode because more people know about it, interact with it, and practice it thanks to the unprecedented reach of the Web, the ways we can access it, and the number of places we can share and find information. The whole of design may seem no more than a Google search away on whatever device we want, but much design history still hasn’t migrated from boxes and shelves to digital files on servers and in databases. And what has migrated may be unreliable or incomplete.

Both forces combined have certainly elevated, broadened, and enriched design over the past twenty years or so, but they have also given rise to a growing trend toward “new” and “now.” In the Internet Age, design history is neither of those things. Instead, it is associated with words like “old,” “outdated,” “archaic,” among other unfavorable descriptors. It’s about people from, like, a hundred years ago doing lots of long, hard manual work without computers. And let’s not forget the stuffy old instructors who deliver bone-dry design history lectures and assign dreadfully long readings from super-heavy textbooks. For these reasons, it must be repackaged in the context of quick-fix social media and grabby blog posts and linkbait to become “new” and “now.”

One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery, particularly visual displays of information commonly labelled “infographics” culled from online library, museum, and archive collections, without the correct citation: it’s either missing, incomplete, or the source cited lacks the actual reference. Countless Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Facebook pages, tweets, and other forms of social sharing feature these images with little more than a trite “cool historic infoviz” or “[INFOGRAPHIC] Awesome Victorian data display” to accompany the posts. It may seem harmless, but the compounded reposting creates more distance between the original source and the place it was found (reverse image search is occasionally helpful, but no substitute for correct citation).

The widespread use of historical design imagery as visual fodder for personal mood boards and attention-seeking reduces the value of design history to clip art that can be freely redistributed across the web without regard for provenance or historical context. Works that are out of copyright or in the public domain aren’t necessarily fair game because there are no legal repercussions (as with music videos on YouTube). They are still someone’s creation and it’s worth stating who made them, when, where, and why, not just in the interest of good scholarship but in the interest of helping others learn more about that “cool” discovery.

An event I attended recently at the New York Public Library, Peripheral Landscapes: The Art of Maps, perfectly encapsulated the problem of design history stripped of meaning. The event featured three digital collages constructed entirely from cut-outs of “decorative and non-informational elements that reside along the edges of maps” that are part of the library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. The project was part of the library’s Net Artist in Residence program intended to make the most of their digitized historical collections and infuse them with a little more “new” and “now.” For most of the talk, the artist, Jenny Odell, spoke about her interests in online imagery and particularly Google Maps and Google Street View, and to be fair, most of the work she showed was conceptually interesting. When asked during Q&A if she documented the image sources she used, her response was a plain and simple “no.” Granted, much art contains allusions to its influences but doesn’t often state them directly. In this case, a library-sponsored art project using its own historical map collection to boost public awareness and use, attribution was surprisingly not a requirement — nor an obligation on the artist’s part — if only for the sake of helping viewers identify where the “non-informational element” came from and encouraging them to dig deeper into the map collection.

Making the effort to preserve links to the past across the analog-digital divide is critical to design history’s survival. In the absence of web citation police or a definitive, comprehensive online source of design history across all design fields, the responsibility belongs to everyone to correctly cite historical design imagery they post with the original source and not some derivative source or a linkrot-vulnerable URL. Even if it means doing a bit more homework beyond a Google search.


Understanding, Fast and Slow


Have you ever felt like the only person in the room who didn’t get something? And you felt too embarrassed to ask for an explanation? Maybe it was in a classroom or business meeting or a social gathering where everyone was vigorously nodding in agreement, chuckling at an inside joke, or jumping to the next topic of discussion before you could make heads or tails of what just happened?

We’ve all been there — not understanding something as quickly as others (or so it seems) and experiencing a wave of negative feelings because of it. It starts in school: there are “bright” students who are praised for learning quickly and performing well and “dull” students who are frowned upon for being “slow,” not “applying” themselves, and getting poor grades. Rather than question the education system and the one-size-fits-most approach imposed upon us, many of us readily blame ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings: If I don’t get something, there must be something wrong with me.

The problem continues well into adulthood. Often, when we explain something to co-workers or others, we expect them to follow along at our pace: If I get it, why shouldn’t they? Worse yet, we may rid ourselves of any responsibility: If they don’t get it, too bad — that’s not my problem. We even label those who don’t match our accepted speed of comprehension — slow on the uptake, not on the ball, dim, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, etc. Sadly, the notion of explaining concepts to presumed “slow” people has spawned its own industry. Idiot’s Guides and (Fill-in-the-blank) for Dummies books provide generally useful instruction on a variety of topics, but the marketing wrapper for that content reinforces the stigma of presumed stupidity. Despite the light-hearted tone and humorous illustrations, the message behind such books is that anyone who needs a little extra help to get by in life is somehow inferior. Why does the thoughtful, clear explanation of anything have to be targeted to “idiots” and “dummies”? And when did intelligence become associated with how fast someone learns something?

Attitudes towards learning and rates of comprehension need to evolve to accommodate the diversity of thinking styles different people possess. To start, we need to accept the fact that slow isn’t necessarily bad and fast isn’t necessarily good. We also need to move away from the default solution to just make things more visual because we process more information more quickly through our eyes (as it stands, we’re still not doing a very good job of maximizing visual thinking to accelerate understanding). Effective communication that “clicks” for everyone relies on having a firm grasp of what you’re communicating and a knowledge of principles for structuring and presenting your content, whatever content and format it may be. I find these guidelines particularly useful:

  1. Show the whole picture, then focus on the parts. Just starting with detail or component pieces makes it hard to see how everything fits together and may alienate those who are unfamiliar with the larger system. A bird’s-eye view of content helps establish boundaries and relationships, so that learning is cumulative and associative from one part to the next.
  2. Provide persistent navigation and orientation. The longer the presentation or amount of content, the easier it is for someone to lose track of where they are and get confused. Much like a physical space, guiding someone through new or difficult content requires markers and signposts to let them know how far they’ve gone, how much is left, and of course, where the end is. A mini table of contents on every page of a presentation can help mark the journey: each section can be “lit up” when it’s active and greyed out when it’s not. Even a simple “three things” or “five things” construct can help make information memorable.
  3. Set checkpoints to confirm understanding. It’s easy to march right through an explanation or presentation of something we’re familiar with. It’s also easy to forget what it’s like not to be familiar with that same material, which is why it’s essential to regularly confirm understanding — genuine understanding — with an audience in-person. Slow down, scan people’s body language, look for frowns or squints, and even if the telltale signs aren’t visible, proactively ask “did that make sense?” or “should I repeat that?” to see where further explanation is needed. Often, requests for clarification don’t come on their own, so encourage questions — just don’t call them “stupid” questions.
  4. Prepare multiple explanations. A single, literal explanation of a technical subject may work perfectly well… for a technical audience. Multiple metaphorical explanations, in which concrete, tangible examples represent abstract or complex concepts, can be devised for almost anything and for almost every audience. You can usually tell when someone knows their stuff when they can easily generate compelling illustrations of the same thing using rich, memorable metaphors in order to bridge an understanding gap.
  5. Promote patience. This is probably the toughest of all. Not only is it important for the explainer/presenter to be patient with an audience and do whatever it takes to help them get something, but it is vital that group members (when dealing with a team setting) manage their behaviors and not intimidate those who need more time or effort to process. Collaborative work suffers when team members possess different levels of understanding about their project, so it benefits the entire team to bring everyone up to speed and leave no one behind.

For some, making sense of the world is a race down a highway. For others, it’s a winding, rambling road. Regardless what pace suits our audience, we still need to ensure they move toward understanding at a speed that suits them best — whether we’re information designers or not.


The Dawn of the Understanding Age


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 little easier.


The Box of Digital Wonder


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

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.