The Real Meaning of Information Design

November 29, 2013

real-info-design

Will we ever dig our way through all this information design content and hit the bedrock beneath?

We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


Public Space

September 3, 2013

washinton-square2

Sometimes thoughts need the right space to happen, the right space to live in. We may choose to distance ourselves from one dimension of our reality to experience another, to have new ideas or gain perspective. At other times, life decides which side of reality we must confront, and so our thinking conforms (or resists).

In this moment, I am writing from Washington Square Park. My thoughts are in many places — work, home, past, future — but right now, I’m immersed in the ecosystem of the park. The weather is pleasant, the heat of summer mellowed to a comfortable level — and a signal that fall may not be far. NYU students are back from summer break, or just starting their college experience. Old friends are reconnecting, new friendships are forming. Technology is everywhere: students smiling at text messages, calling family back home, or working deadpan on their laptops, tourists shooting photos or videos of the whole scene, and me, typing this into my iPhone. Jazz music, performed only by a sax player and drummer, sets the perfect backdrop to this afternoon confluence of people and place, a shared sequence of moments in a small but timeless patch of NYC.

One moment, hidden among so many parallel realities, struck me this afternoon. As I finished my lunch, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a furry caterpillar begin a perilous journey across a heavily-trafficked walking path leading to the fountain in the center of the park. I looked around and realized I was the only one watching him attempt to cross. Slowly he (or she?) inched forward, arching then flattening his fuzzy brown body. He barely made it three feet, out of the ten feet he needed to cover, before an unsuspecting student clipped his head with his bright white sneaker. In one final arching motion, the caterpillar’s journey ended, and all the while, the scene continued. Friends laughed, dogs walked beside their owners, a breeze flowed through the trees, and the jazz played on. It wasn’t long before he “blended” into the ground, flattened by the waves of footfalls up and down the path.

Life goes on, indeed, but it mustn’t go unnoticed. I don’t know the caterpillar’s greater purpose in the grand scheme of things, unless he was destined to become a butterfly and start a butterfly effect. Where did he come from? Where did he think he was going? Why did I just see that? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and looking for deeper meaning, but I can’t ignore the significance of that moment.

I come to this park, as I do other public places, to see my world differently — but really, I come to see the world. In fact, I always see many different worlds, macro and micro, overlapping, colliding, coexisting. In the space of a lunch break, in the space of a public park in NYC, many things can happen if you just tune into the worlds around you.


New Modalities of Understanding

April 1, 2013

modalities

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”?


Being Prepared

January 28, 2013

blogart_preparedness

Not long ago, most everyday problems were solved with little more than one’s wits, a dose of common sense, and one’s own two hands. Virtually any appliance or piece of equipment in a typical home could be serviced with a little mechanical know-how and a basic toolkit. Do-it-yourself guides such as the Time-Life Home Repair and Improvement series provided all the instruction one needed to tackle even more complex electrical, plumbing, and carpentry projects. Of course, the guides left out how much actual time, sweat, and trial-and-error it would really take to get something done.

I was fortunate growing up to have an industrious grandfather who took every opportunity to school me in the ways of the handyman. He gave me my very first set of tools — a ballpeen hammer, flat and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a crescent wrench, socket wrenches, small vise clamps, some metal files, and a saw — all neatly housed in a metal Sears Craftsman toolbox, with plenty of room for additional tools as my skills grew. In our basement workshop, he would teach me the basics of repair, from simple woodworking to soldering, but the most important lesson of all involved no tools. It was how to be resourceful.

When MacGyver first aired on television, it was love at first sight. I devoured every episode with the hope of learning some clever trick or inventive use for an everyday object that might one day get me out of a similar jam, as young boys often imagine. With my parents’ permission, I got my hands on a Swiss Army knife. I didn’t want just any model, not even the one good old MacGyver carried around (apparently, there were several). I chose the biggest, baddest model available at the time, aptly named the SwissChamp. At 3.5 inches thick and boasting 33 tools, it was guaranteed to serve me well for a very long time. About twenty-five years later, it hasn’t let me down, although I still haven’t used every tool on that thing.

My tinkering tendencies have mellowed considerably over the years. The scope of problems I can fix with my own hands has shrunk to what I have the patience and time for, which usually involves common plumbing repairs, light woodworking, and anything that can be mended with superglue. Don’t even ask me about car repair.

Today, I rely most on the modern-day multi-tool: my iPhone. Nearly six years since its debut, the iPhone still amazes me; as a physical object, it does little more than provide a mirror reflection on its screen, but as an electronic device, it houses a telephone, television, radio, computer, address book, notebook, calculator, camera, camcorder, compass, level, flashlight, video game console, and much more. It won’t help me install a new washer and dryer, for instance, but it will help me search for a local appliance dealer, review customer ratings, buy the appliances, call to schedule installation, and set a reminder in my calendar for the appointment. Not that I’m proud of this pinnacle of human achievement, mind you.

The MacGyver instinct never goes away, though. I’ve recently become fascinated with the phenomenon of every day carry, or EDC, which promotes and even glamorizes preparedness for “situations ranging from the mundane to the disastrous” using a compact but high-performance toolkit. Whereas a simple pocket knife may have been more than suitable for daily needs a century or so ago, the modern “carry” typically includes a smartphone, a sturdy folding knife, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a pen, a manly wristwatch, and the occasional handgun. There are even preferred brands and discussion forums dedicated to the subject. I’ll admit that, except for the weapons, many of the items and the level of rigor and design that goes into them are impressive, but I wonder if the coolness factor of survivalist gadgets and shiny metal objects overshadows the spirit of utility and resourcefulness that every day carry embodies.

The ability to rise to the unexpected challenges of everyday life and figure out a solution on the spot, sometimes under pressure and with few resources, is becoming a lost skill. Technology can only carry us so far, but we may eventually find ourselves stranded, over-dependent and helpless to fend for ourselves without it. Real preparedness is more than having all the right tools for every predicament or every imaginable supply in abundant stock to counter existential risks. They mean little without the presence of mind to grasp a situation, determine the right action, and get the job done, however big or small.

How might we re-learn to be more capable, self-sufficient thinkers and problem solvers when we take our modern conveniences for granted? Boy Scout training for grown-ups, perhaps?


The Dawn of the Understanding Age

December 20, 2012

understandingage

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to usher in the Understanding Age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and, most important of all

  • Never assuming anything

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

 


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