Making and Meaning

October 20, 2015


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?

New Modalities of Understanding

April 1, 2013


While doing research on the links between information architecture and information design, I came across a video clip of Richard Wurman talking about the origin of the term he has been credited with inventing. It isn’t the first place he’s told the story, so this particular video didn’t seem earth-shattering… until right around the 5:40 mark. Spurred by an apparent disdain for the sorry state of web design, he ventures into a discussion of modalities (ways of perceiving and experiencing), and particularly how new technology is often mistaken for a new modality in the way we experience information. He cites the iPad and the Kindle as examples of new ways of repackaging content, but not fundamentally better or significantly different ways of absorbing information. Reading is still reading, only now you can swipe and scroll through pages on a small screen instead of thumbing through a paper codex to do it.

What we have yet to achieve, he argues, is a “new path to viscerally understanding information.” This realization, that there is a whole frontier of human understanding that we have yet to venture into, is a critical one at a time when the notion of human progress is so sharply defined by what technology affords us — smaller devices, faster speeds, greater connectivity, more content, more screens, and bigger data — and when the prevailing conversations around understanding still hover at the level of methods, tools, technical issues, and other tribal/territorial concerns within data visualization, information architecture, information design, visual thinking, etc.

In my own research and work in information design, I’m constantly nagged by the feeling that not only will confusion continue to reign in the wild and wooly world of understanding professions, but that our heads will remain buried in the sand when it comes to forward thinking about the real future of understanding. Why does it seem like every other tweet, blog post, or magazine article these days questions or defends the validity of some visualization technique, complains about the “big data” phenomenon, stirs debate about good and bad infographics, or just cheerleads about “the power of [ fill in the viz ]” when the next chapters in understanding are hardly being written. How did we get so myopic?

I think that one way to start thinking about the future of understanding is by “going off the reservation” of conventional study and practice and becoming reacquainted with the underpinnings of understanding, through studies of cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, among other areas. The pursuit of “why” can lead to some interesting journeys:

  • Why do we understand? What makes understanding work?
  • Why are humans such visually-oriented creatures? Why don’t we use taste, touch, and smell more as information channels?
  • Why do writing systems work? How did so many different writing systems develop?
  • Why don’t we tap into dreams and the sub-conscious to aid understanding?
  • Why isn’t extra sensory perception explored more seriously?

The realm of science fiction can also provide food for thought and stimulus for research. A willingness to imagine wild new possibilities, regardless of practicality or basis in fact, can open doors that mundane patterns of thought might inhibit:

  • What if you could learn some difficult skill by uploading it to your brain, like in the Matrix?
  • How might a non-human alien species transfer knowledge?
  • What if there was a way to teach babies before they were born, to accelerate their learning?
  • What if you could smell a story, in vivid, accurate detail?
  • What if the concept of understanding went away because every idea and concept was instantly understood?

With so much untapped potential for exploration, I would be deeply disappointed, saddened even, if the pockets of discourse on and activities around understanding remained entrenched in self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-promotion. There is already growing enthusiasm in learning from the past (Lascaux caves, Inuit carved maps, Playfair, Priestly, Snow, etc.), so why not set our sights on the horizon and start discovering “breakthrough ways in the journey of understanding”?

Leaving Twenty Ten

January 1, 2011


To say it’s been a long, difficult year is the understatement of the year. Few have been spared from the thrashing waves of change and misfortune that coursed through this year, whether it’s continued joblessness, lack of health insurance to cover necessary medical treatment, or the shock of sudden natural disasters. In my own life, I’ve been dealt a number of blows in fairly rapid succession. Since I’m not one to divulge every detail of my life to the world, I will only say that no other year has been as mentally draining or as psychologically challenging as 2010. I am grateful to have made it this far without resorting to substance abuse or public fits of berserk rage (it always helps to vent to someone who’s willing to listen).

What I will carry forward with me in 2011 is what I want to focus on in this last post of 2010. Every challenge has yielded some truth about human nature, the world, and the complex machinery of life. Some lessons hit me over the head, while others sunk in gradually as I made sense of a situation. I’m not done fully processing all that has happened this year, nor do I expect to glean all the answers anytime soon.

For now, here are the headlines for my twenty takeaways of 2010:

  1. See the world as it sees itself
  2. Get over yourself (practice humility)
  3. Live a principled life
  4. Remember what’s important, and make time for it
  5. Take responsibility, whether it’s chosen or not
  6. Accept a little imperfection
  7. Know the limits of reason
  8. Appreciate the role of faith (acknowledge the 1% you can’t explain)
  9. Be patient when the speed of life doesn’t match the gear you’re in
  10. Leave room for the unexpected
  11. Look up at the stars sometimes, for perspective
  12. Encourage humanity in the face of incivility
  13. Abolish self-doubt and thoughts of defeat
  14. Always seek answers and solutions (don’t dwell on problems)
  15. Embrace those closest to you
  16. Never be satisfied
  17. Strive for excellence
  18. Seek truth and avoid cheap substitutes
  19. Listen carefully
  20. Don’t be so hard on yourself — enjoy life once in a while

I could elaborate on every one of these points, but I think the message is pretty clear. Looking forward to better things in 2011!

The Mind of the Seeker

February 7, 2010


M74 Spiral Galaxy photo by Simon Dye (Cardiff University) overlaid with Shri Yantra Mandala.

Humanity’s search for knowledge, in its many forms, has always fascinated me. Spanning geographies, cultures, faiths, and generations, the enduring pursuit of truth and insight into the diverse realms of human experience has yielded some of the greatest works of science and art — from the sequencing of the human genome to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Each school of thought or path of study carries its own distinct challenges, “great questions” and intellectual rewards, but it is the same mind that is driven to find answers.

Several months ago, I had read a New York Times article about Carl Jung’s Red Book, a hauntingly personal collection of writings and paintings exploring the depths of his unconscious. Despite the little knowledge I have of Jung’s work (I admit), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see this long-lost treasure up close at the Rubin Museum of Art. When I finally made it to the museum over Christmas vacation, I decided to start at the top floor and take a quick walk through the other exhibits first, saving the “best” for last on the bottom floor (surely, I thought, some trippy mandala paintings and multi-limbed Hindu deity sculptures couldn’t hold my attention for very long, fascinating though they may be).

I was quickly proven wrong.

Almost every exhibit blew me away, but one resonated with me the strongest: “Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe,” up until May 10, 2010. Here’s a Flickr photo set of the exhibit.

While perspectives shifted greatly from spiritual to conjectural to empirical, the quality of execution and level of diligence in constructing coherent visual narratives were remarkably on par across all works. Metaphor and symbolism were as vital as brush and ink in depicting Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies; the artists behind these works employed the tools of design to depict the interrelationships between physical and ethereal planes with such compelling clarity as to affirm their reality. Turning to the early Western astronomers, meticulous drawings of their observations with the naked eye and with simple telescopes helped demystify the heavens and bring humankind’s grasp of the world beyond Earth within reach, religious controversy aside.

Rounding out the survey of astronomical study was a series of typically dazzling photographs of distant nebulae and galaxies marking our present level of achievement. A projected Powers of 10-style video of The Known Universe flaunted the astonishing accuracy with which we now claim to know the universe and our place in it. On the same wall as the projection but directly above was a giant mandala painting (part of the exhibit “Mandala: The Perfect Circle”). I don’t know if the juxtaposition on the same wall was intentional, but graphically and thematically, the two images made perfect sense together.

Reflecting back on that day, I realized that it is the same quest for knowing that links the devotional artist, the scientist, and the modern information designer. The content, the context, and the methods may be different, but all of these individuals share the same purpose: to model reality — be it physical, spiritual, or otherwise — for human understanding and enlightenment. (Even Jung, in working through his inner turmoil, used art and writing to make sense of what he experienced. Psychological information design?)

Today, the skill of modeling reality has been professionalized into many discrete roles, including information designer, infographic illustrator, data visualization expert, CG artist, et cetera. Technology continues to enhance our understanding of the world and expand the means by which we can communicate. Slowly, what our brains actually do is still evolving: how we perceive what is and conceive of what could be, as well as how we construct understanding. I wonder what a “Visions of the Cosmos” exhibit might look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now. What new models will we create? What new understanding will we reach? What will our universe look like then? Will it still be a “universe”?

(Along the lines of how we know what we know, the Rubin Museum of Art is running a pretty amazing event series called Brainwave 2010. I wish I could attend every session!)

Escaping Flatland

May 25, 2009


I usually put more effort into coming up with titles, but this time I settled on what was nearer to hand (thanks to Edward Tufte). In a metaphorical sense, the idea of escaping flatland sums up much of what’s been on my mind lately: breaking free from the mundane “two-dimensional” aspects of daily life and experiencing the world in multiple dimensions. And by that I don’t mean the Michio Kaku sense of alternate realities, but by improving the here and now.

Flatland, to me, is marked by a largely functional existence — just getting by, day after day after day. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this applies to fulfilling the lowest 2 levels of needs: physiological and safety. I would venture a generalization that many people these days are worrying about and focusing more attention on these 2 levels than the other 3 (social needs, esteem needs, and self actualization needs).

From personal experience, work, finances, and other related matters have absorbed most of my attention for quite some time. The economic decline has caused quite a significant shift in priorities, leading to more frugality and thrift. Consequently, I’ve been visiting my local library more often, partly to curb my book-buying habit, but also to find a brief escape in works of fiction like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The same applies to listening to music, watching movies, and going to art exhibits — in bits and bites, they’re enjoyable, but momentary distractions nonetheless.

So how does one truly escape flatland — even in times like these?
(I’m still working on this, so bear with me.)

The first step for me was to identify the activities that are no longer taking place, or that ought to be part of everyday life but got pushed aside. What was missing for me were the things I enjoyed long before the “real world” took center stage: drawing, painting, playing music, cycling, travel, hiking, and many other pursuits that made life multi-dimensional (sorry if that sounds cheesy). They used to happen spontaneously, without too much thought or effort; several of those activities were once a regular part of my day. Now, many years later, I realize how important they were and seek to bring them back. While travel may have to wait a while because of cost, I’m looking into doing more art-making as well as more light hiking in nearby parks. If I can re-work my schedule to balance out all the pieces, I think it might work.

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