Tag: information design

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An Accessible Future

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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.

As for actual design specifications the format mainly remains static across print, environmental, and even 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). Each 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.

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Saving Information Design History, Part 2

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Information design has had more than a few missing pieces in its story for some time, as described in Part 1, so rather than curse the fact that the problem exists, it makes more sense to start filling in the gaps, one by one. With knowledge.

What follows is a very preliminary reading list on information design’s formalization, from the early days when the concept of information design began to take shape to the growing solidification of the term and community of researchers and practitioners surrounding it. This list of 15 publications is highly subjective: it skews towards authors and titles that in my experience are not very well-known or popularized in current discussions of information design, but that have been influential in shaping or adding to information design’s core of knowledge. Important but more widely recognized and publicized “usual suspects” of information design and data visualization reading lists, such as Tufte, Wurman, Bertin, Ware, Tukey, Wilkinson, and Cleveland are not included here.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t yet read every single book here cover-to-cover, although a few are in varying states of completion. My comments highlight key points and reasons why each was an influential point in a progression of thought. Even at that high level, this post runs quite long, so grab a tea or coffee and settle in… (and if you can help it, try not to read this on a smartphone).

Conceptualization: Early Thinking about Design for Understanding

1) International Picture Language by Otto Neurath (1936)

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Neurath, an Austrian philosopher and sociologist, was among the earliest pioneers of design for understanding. The visual system he developed, called ISOTYPE (International System of TYpographic Picture Education) was a breakthrough for representing scientific, technical, historical, and social concepts for the broadest possible audience. The principles codified in this book helped lay the foundation for later information design thinking, and the distinctive graphic style of pictogram used in ISOTYPE by became a model and inspiration for subsequent public communications systems, yet with little direct credit. Notably, Neurath used the term “transformation” to describe the specialized skill of “turning statements of science into pictures.” This concept, and the role of the “transformer” in making complex issues understandable to many, would re-emerge in different incarnations, as the next few books show.

2) Integration, The New Discipline in Design by Will Burtin (Graphis No. 27, 1949)

1949-integration-graphis-will-burtinWill Burtin was another early pioneer of information design thinking whose work pushed the boundaries of how design communicates science and other technical subjects, although very little of his original thinking was actually published. In this short Graphis magazine article, Burtin presents the concept of “integration,” which, similar to Neurath’s “transformation,” aims to move beyond the traditional notion of graphic design as pure representation and art making. He describes the role of the designer as an interpreter of science who, through the integration of light, space, color, texture, motion, time, physical materials, and other experiential elements, can enhance visual communication. Burtin describes this synthesis of design elements as follows, and in doing so, articulates an essential aim of information design work: “If design and art work do not attempt to dictate, but are employed to accelerate understanding, a smooth and dramatic flow develops, which makes the eye take in the various information units as it goes along.”

3) Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar (1961, reissued 2015)

1961-visual-design-in-actionA successful Kickstarter campaign led to the publication of a facsimile edition of this book, a compilation of Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar’s thinking on design and iconic examples of his work spanning identity systems, magazines, catalogs, and even toys. In this book, Sutnar happens to use the term “information design” as “the integration of meaning [content] and visualization [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.” Sutnar succeeded in codifying basic principles of information design in this book as well as in Designing Information and Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards in Visual Communication, both co-authored with Knud Lönberg-Holm — and both notoriously hard to obtain.

4) Graphic Design for the Computer Age: Visual Communication for All Media by Edward A. Hamilton (1970)

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This obscure book by Edward Hamilton, art director of Time-Life Books (publisher of various educational and how-to book series), presents a survey of visual communication, with particular emphasis on information design: the design of “serious, purposeful information,” as distinct and separate from other aspects of design, such as advertising. Hamilton uses the term “information design” frequently (there is even a chapter called “What is Information Design?), although it is unclear how Hamilton came upon the term. He describes the role of the information designer / visual communicator in “the creation of pattern — coherent information — out of a chaos of components” and touches on several dimensions of information design work: human interest, visual language, structure, sequence, scientific illustration, and the latest computer capabilities of the time.

5) Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data edited by Walter Herdeg (1974)

1974-graphis-diagramsThis compilation of graphs, charts, and diagrams helped draw attention to the art and craft of design for understanding on an international scale by showcasing works that represent the range of uses and applications for displaying information. Rather than highlight the aesthetic appeal of visualization, as the recent spate of books often do, this book provides a snapshot of the state of the art circa the early 1970’s and the variety of creative solutions for showing flow charts, timetables, maps, and other visual forms.

A year earlier, Herdeg had published The Artist in the Service of Science, an expanded hardcover edition of Graphis magazine issue 165 from 1973. Although it receives less recognition than Graphis Diagrams these days (and relies heavily on the term “artist” to label creators of visual explanations of science), the book offers a useful historical survey of scientific illustration milestones, methods, and notable figures.

Graphis Press published follow-up compilations to Herdeg’s 1974 volume: Graphis Diagrams 1 (1988) and Graphis Diagram 2 (1996). Both volumes have the same historical overview but different forewords. Interestingly, each volume reflects the stylistic and technical evolution of diagram creation, as well as growing range of uses.

6) Living by Design by Pentagram (1978)

1978-living-by-designOnly six years old as an agency, Pentagram created this book as an introduction to design for non-expert enthusiasts, and it drew from its internal practice areas as a basis for the structure of the book: identity design, information design, environmental design, and product design (with a final chapter that looks inside Pentagram as a company). The chapter on information design is divided into broad sub-sections that relate much more to traditional graphic design than to information design practice as it is understood today: systems, posters, packaging, promotions, and exhibitions; the notable exception, “systems,” refers to directories, signage, and other extensive programs for organizing and presenting information. While there’s little information unique to information design itself, distinct from general graphic design principles, this book adds meaning to the the still nascent term “information design” by equating it with the clear, structured communication of a wide range of information.

Formalization: Information Design Starts to Take Shape

7) Information Design: The Design and Evaluation of Signs and Printed Material edited by Ronald Easterby and Harm Zwaga (1984)

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The NATO Conference on Visual Presentation of Information, held in September 1978 in Het Vennenbos, The Netherlands, was one of the earliest forums focused on the visual presentation of information. The conference sought to shift focus away from computer-based information display techniques and towards “simple technology and traditional forms of presenting information” such as print documents, road traffic signs, instructions, and graphic symbols. It also broke ground by convening professionals from diverse groups involved in the creation of these artifacts — graphic designers, industrial designers, typographers, engineers, psychologists, ergonomists, and human factors researchers — in an attempt to create something of a unifying framework for the theory and practice of designing information.

This nearly 600-page proceedings volume, published six years after the conference, assembles writings from the conference’s contributors, focusing on design evaluation, design parameters, and applications such as sign systems, road traffic signs, consumer/safety signs, and printed material. It compiles research into the processes of visual perception and cognition at work behind information displays and fortifies the practice of information design with a basis of research upon which additional work would follow.

Another important outcome of the conference was the launch of the Information Design Journal (1979), which continues to be the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to information design today.

Exposition: Information Design Thinking Unfolds

The 1980’s saw the birth of the Vienna-based International Institute for Information Design (IIID), and the early 1990’s welcomed the Information Design Association in the UK, both of which are still active today. The U.S.-based Society for Technical Communication started the Information Design Special Interest Group (STC ID SIG) in 1997, but unfortunately, the group is no longer active and very few traces of it remain online. A handful of books from the 1990’s to the present stand apart from the typical how-to books that began to emerge during this time. They further codify, elaborate on, and even raise questions about the nature of information design, its role in the creation of electronic communications and experiences, and its relationship to sibling fields such as technical communication/document design.

8) Visual Function: An Introduction to Information Design by Paul Mijksenaar (1997)

1997-visual-functionThis compact little book (just 56 pages) covers a number of essential topics in information design, supported by an abundance of examples from history and recent practice. Mijksenaar, a wayfinding expert best known for his uniform airport wayfinding systems, takes a conversational, often opinionated tone in discussing issues of form and function in information design, with particular emphasis on understanding the content, people, and purpose of a message or communication system before engaging in the graphic design of a solution. He brings together some useful information design frameworks to help bridge theory and practice for designers. One framework classifies types of visual representations (e.g., iconic images, abstract images, alphabetic language), and another, an adaptation of cartographer Jacques Bertin’s “visual variables” for designers, groups the variables by function: distinguishing, hierarchical, and supporting. While the content may seem too light to some, the value of this book lies in its approachability and ease of reading, which help provide a manageable introduction to information design for young graphic designers and those from other fields.

9) Visual Information for Everyday Use: Design and Research Perspectives edited by Harm Zwaga, Theo Boersma, and Henriette Hoonhout (1999)

1999-visual-information-for-everyday-useSixteen years after the Het Vennebos conference, a second similar gathering took place in The Netherlands: “Public graphics: visual information for everyday use” in Lunteren, focusing again on “static public information products.” This proceedings book, published four years after the Lunteren symposium, follows the same structure as the event, with sections on methods and methodology, user instructions, warnings, forms, tables and graphs, maps and plans, wayfinding information, and graphic symbols. At at time when the World Wide Web was starting to take off and attention began its inevitable shift to the screen, this book asserted the need for deeper understanding of applied behavioral research and cognitive ergonomics in the design of print information, through methods that are now primarily associated with interactive and product design, such as usability testing. Overall, the collection of writings in this book sought to bridge the gaps between psychology, social science, design, and industry under the still-forming umbrella of information design and urge traditional designers away from intuition-driven design and towards a more research-based approach.

A notable community-centered outcome of the Lunteren symposium was the start of the “InfoDesign” and “InfoDesign Cafe” e-mail discussion lists, which sadly are no longer active. (The site housing the archived “InfoDesign” list from 2002 to 2011 recently went offline. The Yahoo! Group archive of the “InfoDesign Cafe” list from 1997 to 2005 is still online, for now.)

10) Information Design edited by Robert Jacobson (1999)

2000-information-designAs with the previous book, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a shift in focus from print to web and interactive media, which prompted many to re-examine and broaden the information design conversation as fundamental issues were still being debated. This anthology, culled from a diverse group of contributors, provides a snapshot of a field still in flux and grappling with the newer challenges of designing for online and screen-intermediated experiences. Across three sections, each devoted to theory, practice, and technology, the contributions present a spectrum of viewpoints on what information design is (or isn’t), different supporting theoretical principles (e.g., Sense-Making, human-centered design, wayfinding), the variety of applications and approaches (e.g., addressing information needs at a sensory and perceptual level, maximizing graphic techniques in the information design process), and what the future information experience might look like (e.g., defining the multimedia experience, the use of 3-D graphics).

11) Information Design: An Introduction by Rune Pettersson (2002)

2002-information-design-an-introductionA meatier though far less visual counterpart to Mijksenaar’s introductory text, Pettersson’s book dives deep into five areas: message design, text design, image design, graphic design, and cognition. The book expounds on information design theory far beyond most books I’ve seen, covering many basic and advanced concepts and principles behind creating clear, effective communications (or “information utility goods,” as Pettersson refers to them). However, as exhaustive as this book is on the intellectual side, there is surprisingly little by way of practical application: case studies and professional examples demonstrating the theories described are absent. Still, despite this shortcoming, the book is valuable as an essential reference for why and how certain information design techniques work, or don’t.

12) Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication edited by Michael J. Albers and Beth Mazur (2003)

2003-content-and-complexityTechnical communication and information design have long struggled for clarity within and across their professional boundaries. There isn’t clear consensus on how the two relate to one another, but it is clear that they have much in common. This book combines perspectives from professionals in both fields to work towards synthesizing theoretical and practical knowledge across both. Contributions are not grouped by topic, although a few themes recur, such as similarities/differences between information design and technical communication (particularly, the common design challenges both address), the role of research in enriching practice, and techniques for improving (mostly) technical communication-specific practices. As with other anthologies, this book reflects of-the-moment thinking, especially in the context of the emerging Web and the role of both professions in that space.

13) Information and Document Design: Varieties on Recent Research edited by Saul Carliner, Jan Piet Verckens, Cathy de Waele (2006)

2006-information-and-document-designAnother Dutch conference, another proceedings book. This time, it was the 2004 “Information Design Conference” in Tilburg, The Netherlands, which focused on research in the overlapping fields of information design and document design (an almost-synonym for technical communication). The ten studies featured in the book are organized into three sections: marketing communication (intended to sell), functional communication (intended to inform), and online communication (including websites and e-mail). A fundamental aim of this book is to provide an over-arching perspective of research in information and document design by addressing several understanding gaps: geographic differences between North America and Europe, different research focuses and methods, different roles and disciplines involved in research (also across geographies), and the predominance of experimental versus practical research, among others. This book may not readily appeal to practitioners, given its academic style, although the lessons gleaned from the studies featured directly inform real-world work on information- and text-intensive projects.

14) Thoughts on Designing Information by Inge Gobert and Johan Van Looveren (2015)

2015-thoughts-on-designing-informationTaking a break from research and anthologies… this recent publication aimed at young information designers draws together the personal and professional perspectives of sixteen information designers working in data visualization, editorial design, interaction design, and environmental design, to paint a broad picture of information design today. Interviews with each designer highlight the core commonalities uniting their work: finding engaging ways to connect people and information, mastering tools and methods, and collaboration. There are also differences in individual aims, self-identification (as something other than “information designer”), and what aspiring information designers need in order to prepare for their future career. What sets this book apart is that it takes information design seriously as a real field of study and practice, unlike many other books that focus on the creation or glorification of visual outputs by “artists” and “designers.” It showcases the range of possibilities and challenges information designers encounter as thinkers, problem solvers, and artists.

15) Information design as principled action: Making information accessible, relevant, understandable, and usable edited by Jorge Frascara (2015)

2015-information-design-as-principled-actionOne last anthology! Frascara has been active in information design for a long time; book #7 above (Information Design: The Design and Evaluation of Signs and Printed Material) features a paper he wrote, entitled “Design principles for instructional materials.” As the title suggests, the book centers on practical and ethical concerns in the field today, although there is due attention to theory in a section called “Conceptual Frames.” Other sections of the book deal with information design history, case studies in design practice, and case studies in design education. Apart from the specifics that each contribution delves into, the book as a whole mirrors not just (part of) the current state of the art— the latest research, methodologies, and applications — but the voice, spirit, and substance of a maturing field whose importance has only grown. Frascara captures this point in the book’s conclusion:

There is an urgent need to develop a culture of clear communication. Our profession has a mission to promote this culture in both its visual and its verbal form. To do this, not only it is necessary to be convinced of the value of clear communication: one has to acquire the tools to implement it. These tools, discussed in this book, allow us to practice the design that is needed: user-centered, evidence-based, and results-oriented.

Information design is an accountable practice, and evaluation of performance is an integral part of its processes. It does not have to do with styles, fashions, artistic intuitions or arresting personalities: its material is daily life and the possibility to improve it through a better way of managing information.

Conclusion

Books, journals, articles, and other writings are a vital link with information design’s past. As this short list shows, people from many backgrounds have been wrestling with conceptions, definitions, boundaries, intersections, lineages, and best practices of this crazy thing known as “information design” for quite some time, and still do today. What matters is that they have done so with respect for the past by building upon the ideas of those who came before them (the references found in the back of most of these books are a goldmine). As long as writings about information design and related concepts are known of, findable, accessible — and most importantly, used in a constructive way to promote learning and understanding for a range of audiences — the field may yet preserve its integrity and flourish well into the future.


Since a comprehensive information design history has yet to be written, I’ve relied on Beth Mazur’s high-level timeline from “Information Design in Motion,” featured in Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication (2003), as the backbone for part of this post.

 

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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.