Tag: information design

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Saving Information Design History, Part 1

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This post arrives coincidentally at the same time as the Information+ conference at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is among the few (and most recent) forums where serious information design practitioners and researchers are able explore and discuss key issues in the field. The spectacular lineup of speakers and talks reflects the calibre of discussion. I’m kicking myself for not being there, but I’m optimistic that this is one opportunity in a progression of events and milestones to advance the development of information design as a properly recognized discipline.


Once an obscure phenomenon known only to a small community of academics and professionals from psychology and design, information design has stepped gradually out of the shadows into the spotlight of more mainstream thinking and conversations. There is a strong desire for clarity, focus, sense, and meaning amid all our present social and global complexities, and information design has been evolving to rise to the challenge. However, even in this seeming golden age of information design, there is an inherent irony: the deep intellectual and historical foundations of this multi-disciplinary field of research and practice have been lost or obscured, while surface-level tools, techniques, visual artifacts, and publications have become the central focus of recent attention.

Information design’s identity and integrity have been shaped by several factors over the years, but one of the most significant forces to promote understanding — and misunderstanding — has been the rise of the web and the paper-to-digital transition of information design’s history and literature. The amount of information on the web about information design is growing, but it has become far too easy to mistake Google search results for all available information. Unfortunately, much of what Google serves up suffers from recency bias, inaccuracy, incompleteness, or plain old linkrot. Books and publications that are more than 20 years old (which describes a lot of valuable information design-related writing) either don’t rank high in search results or don’t appear online at all because they never made the leap from atoms to bits — and when they are mentioned or shared on social media, there’s often no accompanying credit to the original source. As paper trails vanish and offline research dwindles, many influential thinkers and important works slip through the cracks.

Losing Our Profession

An immediate consequence of this fading history is that the very term “information design” is losing clout in discussions that are squarely about communication for understanding. I’m seeing more articles talking directly about information design practices and principles with zero use of the term “information design” by name:

UX vs UI vs IA vs IxD : 4 Confusing Digital Design Terms Defined

Learning From Data Viz Pioneer Edward Tufte: 5 Lessons For Interface Designers

Visualizations That Really Work

Design in the Age of the App Icon

I’m not exactly sure why information design is missing from these articles. Maybe some of these authors don’t know about it or don’t fully understand it because of the flawed state of information on the web described earlier. Regardless of the specific reasons, these articles reflect a troubling trend: as newer offspring of design and technology surge in popularity and cobble together their own professional canon of heroes, ideas, and principles, they “borrow” from older sibling fields like information design with little to no acknowledgement — knowingly or not. And many of those who write about making the complex simple and presenting information typically skim the surface of these deep, rich topics, churning out shallow how-to listicles or click-baity showcases of “beautiful information” in order to feed the still growing appetite for all things viz-tech-design-innovation-creativity-etc-etc.

The real harm these phenomena are causing the still-solidifying discipline of information design has gone unaddressed today: by not appropriately identifying information design principles, practices, methods, and approaches by name as “information design,” the legacy and information encapsulated in that term diminishes. In the wilds of today’s fast-changing information ecosystem, information design may well fall prey to “survival of the sensational”: older ideas that lose equity, relevance, and mass appeal disintegrate and die over time, while young ideas that speak to the zeitgeist of current fads, fashions, and media buzz thrive atop the presumed graves of their predecessors. The best chance for anything old to sustain a pulse is to be made new again — to be recontextualized and reinvented, almost beyond recognition — to suit an increasingly fickle audience that has little time, patience, or interest to seek out original sources and learn what the past has to say for itself first-hand — if they even knew there was a past. The infographics and dataviz craze have unfortunately served that end by frequently slicing off the thin veneer of graphic design and visual rhetoric of information design that is most familiar to people, slapping on a fresh coat of paint, and putting it on wide display, while abandoning the “unsexy” theory, scholarship, and pioneering works that comprise the foundation and structure of information design.

Information Design Won’t Save Itself

For too long, the voice of information design has been quiet. There has been a steady murmur amongst isolated pockets of communities, and barely an intelligible whisper in the cacophony of public discourse (the voice of data visualization, however, has become a chorus, only increasing in volume). It’s time for information design to speak a little louder, and from the shoulders of our giants.

Information designers must do a better job of championing their field and their history in the face of ambiguity and confusion. It starts with reinforcing understanding of information design broadly (still an on-going process within the field) and appreciating the lineage of thought and practice that got us here — far beyond Tufte, Wurman, and other usual suspects. We need to be more diligent about doing our homework and reconnect with our roots, no matter how deep we have to dig. Granted, some practitioners may be more concerned with just doing the work or may consider information design just one more skill in their toolkit without any stake in the field, but what, then, becomes of the field? Whose responsibility is it to carry the torch and guide young designers and newcomers to information design, or to educate everyday people, governments, and organizations of the value this work? And who decides what gets carried forward, and what gets left behind?


In Part 2 of this post, I will explore the history of information design’s formalization by way of a literature review. Building on earlier work, the post will attempt to shed light on some little known influencers and links in the chain of information design’s development over the past 80 years or so. Stay tuned…

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If You Build It, Will They Come?

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“Community” is a term that gets tossed around so much these days, but how often do we stop to consider its fundamental meaning? It can evoke feelings of belonging, warmth, unity, and goodwill. It can be a source of identity. Community is how we have survived for thousands of years, sharing knowledge, resources, and basic necessities.

Community sure is a wonderful thing. But the nature of communities has changed much in recent years. They’ve become more distributed and virtual, with the web as their home and devices as conduits for connection, interaction, expression, and creation. Social networks have fundamentally reshaped the idea of community, for better and worse. We have the capability to connect with one another in so many ways across time and distance, and we can discover and associate with a wider range of communities than ever, but how does that change our role within those communities?

Co-organizing the recent Information Design NYC Meetup (described here) got me thinking about what building community means when the idea of being “connected” means different things and manifests in different ways.

Getting off the ground

Planning the first event after a four-year dormancy was challenging. Without the benefit of a long track record of events or knowledge of who our members really were, we didn’t have much to go from. All we knew was that we had over 300 members with some type of interest in information design (few member profiles include background information, but most list membership in other groups and additional interests), and we needed to get them engaged in the group again — to feel like there was something there worth being actively a part of. It wasn’t simply a matter of finding a speaker, locking in a venue, and putting out some snacks.

We needed to come back strong.

Our grand idea: a not-your-average Meetup that would breathe life into subject of information design for both newcomers and pros alike. The goal was to get people moving, thinking, talking, connecting, and above all, exchanging different points of view. The dynamism and energy we hoped to spark in this first event, we thought, would light a fire within the group.

Finding the right name for the event was key. By calling it Information Design: Who, What & Why?, we intended to open up possibilities for discussion within the subject and among attendees. Each question alludes to both the historical figures and milestones in information design as well as to the people in the room.

Making it fun and functional

Naturally, we had to apply some information design thinking to the event experience. We tried to create an event that we ourselves would want to go to, so we designed activities that celebrated the past and present of information design, invited diverse perspectives, poked fun at some serious aspects of the field, and got people thinking about clarity and understanding a little more.

Interactive Posters (part 1): From the start of the event, we wanted to prompt people to share their thoughts and spark conversation with others. We created six posters, each posing a different open-response or quiz-style question to be answered with hand-written post-its or chosen with colored sticky dots. We placed each poster around the room so that people could walk around, post an answer, see other people’s answers, and strike up conversation about them.

Overview presentation: We chose to present something ourselves for this first event to set the right tone and focus for our group going forward, as well as set the right context to feed into discussion. Instead of a typical show-and-tell or didactic lecture, we provided a 30-minute high-level overview of information design across eight dimensions, with occasional questions to the group, and we then transitioned to a brief Q&A before networking.

Networking cards: To make networking a bit more interesting, we created a matching game featuring six key figures in information design (chosen from among many, many others, of course): John Snow, Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman, Ladislav Sutnar, Otto Neurath, and Massimo Vignelli. (In case you’re wondering, we featured four female information designers on one of our interactive posters: Florence Nightingale, Sylvia Harris, Margaret Calvert, and Deborah Adler.) If you had a John Snow card, you had to pair up with someone else who had a John Snow card. Then you each would take turns asking each other the networking questions on the back (who’s, what’s, and why’s). After 15 minutes, you’d look for another person with your card and repeat. We also included a very short bio of each pioneer on the back.

Interactive Posters (part 2): For the final networking activity, we added a twist: everyone with the same color information design pioneer card had to gather around the poster with the matching color and discuss the responses on the poster (i.e., everyone with an orange card went to the poster with the orange sign). We designed this so that no two people who already networked would be in the same group: each key figure of information design came in six different colors.

Photos of how it all came together are here.

The outcome

Overall, the event was a success, despite the fact that attendance was way lower than expected (as a number of event organizers point out, when it comes to free events, many people often don’t show). People seemed to enjoy the posters and were not shy in sharing their thoughts. The presentation was a bit bumpy and microphone issues got in the way, but for the most part, the group was tracking along and had good questions afterwards. Networking went well, even with a smaller group, but the cards weren’t exactly intuitive for everyone. The walk-through of poster responses and reveal of the correct answers at the very end was a hit. We were fortunate to receive some glowing reviews by a few people afterwards and ample interest in the next event.

What did we learn?

Despite all our enthusiasm for the activities and for getting people together, we knew this wasn’t magically going to jump start the group. It was a learning experience that would help us understand our members, what they’re interested in, and how we could move the group forward. Here are some lessons learned, in five broad buckets:

  1. Purpose: To us co-organizers, the Meetup group had a focused purpose as a hub for people with an active interest in information design and a desire to engage with others who do it or know a lot about it. We thought it was mainly supposed to be a learning and networking resource. But for many people, the reality is that Meetup is just a place where you can find cool stuff to do and sample something new. The smorgasbord of topics and causes available on the Meetup platform is vast, encouraging many to pile their plates high with group memberships (sometimes hundreds), then sit back and wait for news of any interesting happenings. As we steer the course of the group, we’ll need to find and attract people who share the same purpose — the two-way knowledge sharing and the professional contact — while welcoming the curious who want a casual glimpse into the world of information design. It would be too difficult to make the group all things to all people while trying to build a core community.
  2. People: We didn’t really know enough about our members, given the thin information on Meetup. Doing a poll or survey didn’t seem too appealing because, as we all know, asking for any kind of substantive feedback is near impossible these days. As it turned out, we had many more newcomers, enthusiasts, and related professionals than actual die-hard information designers (some people came through our event partner, General Assembly, whose audience comes from tech, design, and business). As mentioned above, the serious information designers should be the backbone of the group, but where are they? Do they even know our Meetup group exists? If they do, what’s stopping them from joining? Is Meetup’s cool factor now on par with Myspace and Friendster? To get a better grip on our membership, we need to find ways to learn more about who’s in the group, and we need to start getting more information designers involved in driving the community.
  3. Pulse: It’s unfortunate that the group fell silent for so long. The prolonged inactivity and lack of updates on the Meetup page really set us back. The regular rhythm of events and member engagement evident in more lively Meetup groups is a sign of good health and great encouragement to get involved. Looking ahead, our group will need a steady, manageable pace for event planning and variable time/energy investment so that we and member volunteers don’t burn out. Intermediate updates, Q&A discussions online, smaller spinoff events, and other forms of activity could help sustain momentum between bigger organized gatherings.
  4. Participation: Social networks and platforms like Meetup make it easier than ever to join “communities,” but being in one of those communities requires hardly any effort. Participation ranges in every group, from passive lurker to active supporter, but when more people are passive than active, or when there’s more expectation for things to happen than people mobilized to make those things happen and ensure they succeed, there’s a big problem. That’s not what I’d consider a real community. It’s still early for us, but we need to see how best to stimulate participation with a few tactful nudges rather than an onslaught of pushy messaging and persistent, nagging e-mails. Maybe after establishing a pulse and building a track record of events, we might see participation grow naturally and people share some sense of ownership for the group.
  5. Promotion: Meetup is its own promotion platform, and there are opportunities to cross-promote with other groups. We relied on the usual suspects to get the word out — Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — wrote blog posts to provide more detail, and sent members reminder e-mails. General Assembly posted the event on their calendar and sent out their weekly newsletter the day before our event. For sure, plenty of people saw something about the event, but the message didn’t seem to ripple out: there was an occasional retweet and a few likes here and there, but no real surge of promotional support. Perhaps if we featured a well-known information designer or had a bit more clout as a group, the buzz would have been louder. Nevertheless, we still managed to drum up a considerable number of RSVP’s.

Online or offline, virtual or physical, what every community boils down to is one word: care. Communities are groups of people who care about the same thing and take great care to protect it, preserve it, share it, teach it, study it, or just enjoy it, whatever it may be. When everyone cares and shows they care by contributing in some form to the community with time, knowledge, or some other resources, the community survives and thrives. But when few people or nobody cares, community disintegrates. Community organizers can do their part to lead and manage their group, but the group itself decides its own fate, either by clicking buttons and waiting for something to happen or by showing up and making things happen.

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NYC Information Designers (Re)Unite!

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Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me what the information design scene was like in New York City. Surely, one would think that such a design-rich, tech-savvy communications industry hub like New York City would have something going on. I responded with a blank face: “What information design scene?”

At the time, there were a few companies and people explicitly doing information design work, and occasional events showcasing some aspect of information design, usually dataviz or infographics. But there wasn’t really a scene to speak of — no collective presence or community doing stuff consistently and visibly enough that you could point to and say “those are the folks you want to hang with if you’re interested in information design.”

That’s about to change. But first, some background.

Back in 2012, the Information Design NYC Meetup group was founded with the intent of bringing professionals, students, enthusiasts, and others connected to the field together to share knowledge, keep current on trends, see what others are doing, and get to know one another. The first event, an evening of presentations by three information design professionals, drew quite a crowd and rave reviews followed. Sadly, activity halted soon after and the group fell into a lull. I’ll admit my involvement wasn’t as active as it could have been.

Fast forward to December 2015. I received an e-mail that the group was about to be shut down if another organizer didn’t come forward from among the members. Rather than wait and see what would happen — and potentially let the only information design-specific group I knew of in the New York area fade away if no new organizer appeared — I took a chance and stepped up to the organizer role. It was a spontaneous decision, more emotion than reason, but I think it was the right one.

I am extremely happy to say that co-organizer Sheila Pontis and I have officially opened registration for our first event of the year — Information Design: Who, What, Why. It’s intentionally not another show-and-tell or lecture by somebody famous (although we’re planning some of those later on). Nor is it your typical networking event. Instead, it’s a mix of brief presentation and info-designy activities to encourage people to share their own views and personal stories. There’s considerable diversity of thought and practice right here in New York City, and this event will hopefully bring that to the surface. The point isn’t to conclusively define information design in a way that all will agree with, but rather, to reflect what it looks like today in order to broaden awareness and understanding. And have a fun evening making some new friends in the process.

How the event pans out and what comes next depends on a few factors, but we’re optimistic. Reviving a platform-based community of interest and running events is like a second job, and a ton of work and volunteer effort goes into just that. Seasoned leaders and planners of other groups we’ve spoken to can attest to that. There are realities on the participant side of such groups: varying interests and interest levels, limited time and energy, competing commitments, etc. Our hope is that there are people who care enough to not only come to events but to help build the community by leading and contributing to conversations, offering guidance to newcomers, teaching what they know, proposing event ideas, and finding new ways to make the group better.

So, if you’re interested in information design and you’re in the New York metro area, consider joining the Information Design NYC Meetup group. These are the folks you want to hang with if you’re interested in information design.

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Rethinking Design for Safety

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We all struggle with the tension between the way we aspire to be and the way we are. Constructs like the New Year’s resolution only intensify the tug-of-war between the ideal vision of ourselves and the human creature we know ourselves to be (how’s that resolution holding up, by the way?). Often, we resolve to make lifestyle changes that help make us slimmer, healthier, more attractive. But how often do we resolve to make ourselves safer and more resilient amid life’s countless, growing hazards and ever-present risks?

Not often enough, I’d say.

Granted, we can’t all plan for every threat and keep safety top of mind all the time, although many of us do recognize the need to make reasonable provisions for dire situations. But why do some people knowingly adopt self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors that jeopardize their well being? Why do some people disregard concrete warnings that place them squarely in harm’s way and choose instead to take their chances? Especially in the context of information design, which can be used to speed understanding and instigate action in urgent situations, how do we deal with human irrationality in the face of real danger?

What plays out over and over again, from climate change to car accidents, hurricanes to earthquakes, is Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. It’s the one where the grasshopper chose not to heed the warning of the industrious ant who urged him to prepare for winter’s food shortage, only to lay dying of hunger when winter finally came. In an information design context, the ant represents the multitude of efforts by government agencies, public health and safety organizations, and engaged citizens to inform, alert, and prepare the public in the event of a looming threat or sudden emergency. And the grasshopper, well, that’s a sizable portion of the general public.

It’s true that most people do take safety seriously and make some effort to follow the standard guidelines depending on where they live: they install fire alarms and fire extinguishers, stock up on non-perishable food, make a family evacuation plan, prepare “go” bags, and do first aid and CPR training (this should be part of “Human Being 101” education for everyone). And when situations grow more urgent, many people comply with emergency broadcasts and police instructions to relocate or find shelter, rather than suffer the consequences. The broadcasts, guides, and other information that gets out to the public may not always be the clearest or most legible (much of it set in all caps and with plenty of red), but for the most part, they manage to get the job done.

However, there are the Harry Randall Trumans of the world, who stubbornly refuse to take action even when given preliminary warning and mounting evidence that their lives are threatened. Mr. Truman, the 83-year old lodge owner who lived at the foot of Mount Saint Helens, an active volcano in Washington state, made it resoundingly clear that he wasn’t going to leave despite numerous signals that the volcano was awakening (a 4.2 earthquake, steam venting, and a noticeable bulge emerging on the side of the mountain) and the urging of his community. On May 18, 1980, the north face of the volcano exploded, producing molten rock, mud, and ash that reached for miles. Mr. Truman was presumed buried under 150 feet of volcanic debris.

Information designers need to recognize the limitations of the artifacts they create as well as the realities of all the people they design for — the sensible and the irrational — when it comes to safety. The most brilliantly executed piece of information design, whether it’s a data visualization, infographic, warning poster, or instruction manual, means nothing if it doesn’t click with the audience and achieve what it’s supposed to. It must live up to its goal as best it can. Before the content gathering, data analysis, type choice, color palette selection, and all the other usual design tasks happen, there has to be a clear intent behind a message and careful consideration of its delivery: Who needs to know this? What do they care about? Why should they care about this? What do they need to do about it? What could prevent them from taking action? What are the consequences of inaction? Even when it seems all these questions are answered and all available insights are folded into the final design, success isn’t guaranteed. Proof of performance comes from real-life use in the field.

Three examples illustrate the general disconnect between information design artifacts and how people use, or don’t use, them:

Disaster Preparedness Tokyo

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Tokyo is a city prone to earthquakes, floods, nuclear reactor accidents, and other threats. In late 2015, the Disaster Preparedness Tokyo (Tokyo Bousai) guide was distributed to all Tokyo households, along with a map of disaster relief facilities corresponding to the household’s ward. Overall, it ticks many “effective information design” boxes: it’s inviting, easy-to-understand, and comprehensive. There’s even an adorable little rhinoceros mascot named “Bosai,” endearing hand-drawn illustrations, and a manga comic section to liven up pages of otherwise dead-serious content. So what’s the problem? It’s too comprehensive, clocking in at over 300 pages! Sure, it’s all important stuff, but realistically, who would have the patience to sit and take all that in before a disaster, let alone during one? It’s unclear what other efforts exist to complement the guide and reinforce its content, and I’m also not sure how receptive Japanese culture is to detailed manuals (versus American culture), but as a stand-alone piece, it could easily go unread, leaving agencies responsible for disaster relief to pick up the slack with more boots on the ground when trouble strikes.

NYC Choking First Aid Poster

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A common sight in most eateries (and a requirement by many health departments), the choking poster is meant to provide at-a-glance instructions for safely removing stuck food from someone’s airway and restoring breathing if they’re unconscious. Variations exist and trendier versions continue to be created, but the bold “CHOKING” title, human figure illustrations depicting abdominal thrusts, and step-by-step instructions are common (both examples above are from the NYC Department of Health, 1997 and 2010?). However, as with the disaster preparedness guide, there is often no time to stop and read the poster when someone is actually choking — one must act immediately — so the format isn’t optimal for the situation. Poster placement also presents a problem. It might blend into the scenery because of its ubiquity and fail to be noticed. It might also contrast with the decor and ambiance of a restaurant or there might not be suitable wall space allowing full visibility to all patrons and staff, so it could easily get hidden in a corner somewhere. (Side note: Movies and TV shows have used the “Heimlich maneuver” as a dramatic or comic device and have, to a large degree, popularized the technique, but even so, it’s hard to tell if the actors in those situations are correctly and safely modeling the procedure for their viewers. And even if one knows how to perform abdominal thrusts the right way, there’s a risk that it might not work.)

Airline Safety Cards

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One of the most popular examples of information design, the airline safety card is a study in wordless communication across cultural and geographic boundaries. Airplanes may vary in configuration and safety features, but the general instructions for exiting, making emergency landings, and using life preservation equipment are standard on the cards (shown above are panels from the American Airlines Boeing 737-800 Safety Instructions Card, 2012). Despite design and illustration quality improvements over the years, the cards are easy to ignore in the front seat pocket and the potential for misunderstanding still exists, which is why many airlines use live and video demonstrations that interrupt in-flight entertainment to get passengers’ attention and walk through key instructions. Still, given these best efforts, there are people who tune out as soon as they settle into their seat and skip the safety briefing. Whether these people are frequent travelers who can recite the instructions backwards or disaster skeptics who believe “it can’t happen here,” it’s hard to tell, and often, airline crew don’t attempt to make the distinction. (This article from Flight Safety Australia does an excellent job of breaking down passenger safety communication challenges.)

Maximizing the positive human impact of information design requires a proportion shift in how we usually approach information design for safety and emergencies: less focus on information and design, and much more on psychology. Knowing the inter-related mechanics of visual perception, cognition, and design is absolutely essential to presenting information effectively, but this knowledge doesn’t account for how people think, feel, and behave when presented with that information. People make decisions based on attitudes, beliefs, feelings, biases, and a host of other factors. Information designers need to engage their audience with sensitivity and respect in order to uncover those drivers and motivations, especially when it comes to self-preservation. Sometimes, what people share makes rational sense, but occasionally, it defies reason. In both cases, it’s up to information designers to extract the insights that provide clues to the solution.

Poor Mr. Truman may have seemed like a pigheaded old man who foolishly ignored the facts around him. But when you consider more carefully the man and his experiences, the picture becomes a little clearer: He was a war veteran. He was married three times. His wife died three years earlier. He lived 52 years at the lodge he built. He drank often. He was 83. After watching videos about him and hearing him speak about the situation, it became obvious to me that this was a man who was more terrified of surrendering his independence and becoming detached from all that he cared about than losing his own life. He lived his own way in a self-made paradise (turned decrepit museum) and he would be content nowhere else. Period. Of course he was aware of the danger, and deep down he probably knew what his decision would cost him, but it was his decision to make and no one else’s. To have forcefully removed him against his will would have been to end his life right there on the spot.

We need to do our best to unpack the irrational and surface what’s really driving someone’s behavior, whether it’s fear, lack of knowledge, overconfidence, or some past experience that exerts a strong influence on the present. With that understanding, it can become easier to develop human-centered strategies to encourage precaution, such as positive peer pressure from friends and family, normalization and mainstreaming of safety-conscious habits, incentives for taking safety precautions, end-to-end first aid and safety education programs spanning childhood to adulthood, and many others. A holistic, understanding-based approach could transform the topic of safety from something dreadfully tedious or irrelevant to a non-negotiable aspect of everyday life.

We’ll always need help to keep ourselves safe, whether we realize it or not, but we shouldn’t feel intimidated, bullied, or simply put off by the systems we create to ensure safety. Maybe in some distant future, the voice of information design in moments of crisis would be less one of authority and control, and more of empathy and compassion. And we’ll listen, because we’ll know what’s good for us.

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Making and Meaning

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Like many other service professions, information design is typically defined by what the practitioner makes, how they make it, and what benefit comes from it. Invariably, the “making” part of information design work is what usually gets the most attention both within and outside of the field.

With steadily increasing awareness of information design as a real thing people do for a living — mainly through the infographics/dataviz craze explosion over the past decade or so — there’s been a greater interest in the art, science, and craft behind it. A whole industry of instructional guides, tutorials, workshops, and software packages has risen to meet popular demand for what are considered key information design skills and capabilities, not to mention a growing roster of university-level courses and programs devoted to some flavor of information design.

Gaining proficiency in the “how-to’s” of information design is absolutely essential to doing the work effectively, as is gaining hands-on experience through continued practice over many years and across different contexts and challenges. But there is much more to the work than the daily design-ship-bill cycle that puts a roof over one’s head and food on the table.

What’s lost amid the tactics-heavy discussions and pursuit of technical mastery is the other half of the story: deeper reflection on and exploration of meaning in information design — the “why” and broader context of the work that counterbalances the “what” and “how.”

“Meaning,” however, is a fuzzy word. To most, meaning comes from doing “meaningful work” that is personally rewarding or of some social or environmental significance. Without belittling their importance, these pursuits of meaning — the “feel good” and “do good” — only scratch the surface of what meaning means in information design.

Meaning is not the same as a goal or purpose for information design work. It’s not something one aims for or achieves. It is a process of extraction and synthesis of many different experiences and realizations that constantly evolves over the course of one’s career. It is a perpetual cycle of doing and thinking — deep immersion in the micro-scale day-to-day work and broader contemplation of the macro-scale big picture issues:

  • What is the short-term and long-term impact of what I do? How do I look beyond the final deliverable for a particular client, industry, or audience?
  • What habits have become ingrained in the way I work and the types of work I do? Am I too comfortable taking a certain type of project from a certain type of client because it’s easy/profitable/steady? Am I stagnating as a professional because I’m not diversifying my “diet” of projects?
  • How am I responding to large-scale shifts? What social, environmental, economic, technological, and cultural trends and cycles are influencing my clients’ and my audience’s behavior, as well as my own?

Reflection helps one see all the pieces created or collected over the course of a project or work experience, then synthesize all those fragments into a new learning or insight that can then feed back into the work. It is also a process of inquiry into the breadth and depth of information design, beyond what is familiar, established, or readily within arm’s (or cursor’s) reach:

  • Why does information design work? What makes certain practices, methods, techniques, and fundamental “rules” that I use so effective? Is there a recipe or formula for understanding?
  • What else is connected to information design that can enrich what I do? What other fields and bodies of knowledge, like psychology or education, can feed into my work and help me better understand what I do or don’t do?
  • What else is unconnected to information design that can help broaden my view of what I do? What other experiences will give me a fresh perspective on my work and challenge my biases and assumptions? How can I get out of my comfort zone?
  • Who else is behind information design? Are there other people I should know about or read up on besides the usual cast of characters (e.g., Tufte, Wurman, Snow, Minard, Playfair, Nightingale, etc.)?
  • What else can we do with information design? What areas would benefit most from information design that aren’t already? What are some wild ideas that push the boundaries of research and practice?

One big challenge, I think, is that the idea of engaging in an inner dialogue about meaning-making in information design is just that — an inner dialogue only, trapped inside one’s head or notebook and not more openly shared and encouraged within the information design community. In this age of snap judgment, sharing of any sort (online or offline) is as much an invitation to vicious criticism as it is to glowing praise. A lot of insightful thinking may never see the light of day for fear of public scrutiny, or it may never be taken seriously and drown in the social media stream. Nevertheless, the benefits of promoting less conventional and more expansive thinking on the very practice of shaping meaning and facilitating understanding far outweigh the potential risks. Communities of all kinds need fresh ideas and new ways of understanding themselves, supported by a culture of openness to change, in order to grow and flourish.

Information design has come a very long way just to be recognized, accepted, and even celebrated — just a bit — in the public eye. It has taken hard work by many well-known and completely unknown people to establish a foundation of theory, research, and practice upon which many careers have been built and continue to be built. Up to now, that has been the necessary trajectory for information design, a cumulative progression of mostly “making” and research into “making.”

What got us this far, however, is not enough to get us further. To keep information design (and designers) evolving and growing, we need to move the conversation past the familiar territory of do’s and don’ts and start asking more why’s and what ifs. We need to cultivate more mindfulness and awareness in practice to complement craft: high-level conceptualization, broad exploration, deep investigation, and individual introspection. Just imagine if every information designer took time out of their daily routine to sort through the day’s struggles, successes, dilemmas, questions, and inspirations, crystallize those lessons in some form, and put that knowledge to use. What would the future of information design look like then?