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?

Embrace the Wait

March 31, 2015


Have you ever stopped to think about waiting? We spend so much time just waiting for some things to happen, other things to pass. Consider the moments of waiting that happen over the course of a typical day: on line at a register, in traffic, in a doctor’s office, on a plane, etc. The very concept of waiting — a momentary suspension of activity or delayed action until a specific event happens — seems to suggest that we have to be in some mode of action at all times during our waking hours. Being idle has come to be a bad thing, and waiting itself has a generally negative connotation because the thing you want is not in the present but locked away in some defined or undefined point in the future. Time needs to pass before that desired state can come to be. And oh how we pass our time!

To me, commuting by mass transit is the perfect encapsulation of waiting, next to air travel. Commuting can be considered a form of routine waiting. It’s finite, scheduled, expected, and for that reason, we find ways to pour our lives and lifestyles into that span of time. Rituals, habits, indulgences all make their way into our commutes. Over the years as a regular commuter to and from New York City, I’ve observed a growing but unsurprising trend: devices have come to dominate the commuting experience. I regularly scan my subway car to see how many people are using a smartphone, tablet, e-reader, or other gadget. Most of the time, the majority of passengers are immersed in some tech-enabled activity: reading, listening to music, playing video games, watching movies. Signal permitting, people are chatting away, texting, snapping selfies, scrolling through streams of social media updates, or typing in updates of their own. It’s bad enough that we actually are capable of doing all of those things in a shared public space like a subway car or bus, that these are all options for things you can do when you have nothing else to do. The real problem is twofold. First, we haven’t yet learned how to distinguish what we should do from what we shouldn’t do in those situations. Second, and more the focus of this post, we don’t really know how to deal with moments of pause in an activity- and device-free way — to simply embrace the wait.

Reframing the meaning of those quiet, interstitial spaces in our lives requires an understanding of what we’re doing with the busy, booked-up blocks of time on our daily agenda and why. Most of us measure our personal worth or success by our productivity and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we get more stuff done, so we work very hard to do more and more. In school and at work, we often get rewarded not just for scoring higher on a performance scale (like an A+ or a 100%) but for occupying our time with as many extracurricular activities as possible. We try our hardest to exclaim to the world “I am NOT idle! I am highly driven and motivated to succeed!” but what we achieve in the end is little more than exhaustion.

Filling empty space to capacity is a common habit, whether it’s our calendars, our closets, or our stomachs. We do no different to our brains. I would argue that the concept of information overload has less to do with us being bombarded by information from lots of external sources than with us deliberately saturating our own attention with more information than we need. If we’re drinking from the firehose of information, as they say, we’re also the ones holding the hose to our own mouths and controlling the valve. Devices that connect us to the plethora of information in the world and in our lives are not necessarily at fault. They just make it far too easy to indulge in our existing impulses, especially when we think there’s nothing better we should be doing than funneling our attention into a small glowing rectangle that’s conveniently within arm’s reach.

So what else should we be doing if we can’t play with our devices? My simplistic answer: Do as little as possible or nothing at all.

If sleep is the chance we have to rest our bodies and sort out all the memories we’ve collected during the day, what chance do we have during our waking hours to reset our minds and make sense of our experiences and our lives? Sure, there’s meditation, yoga, running, hiking, and many other mind-easing pursuits to help us gain perspective and focus, but what about those in-between waiting moments sprinkled throughout the day? I like lists, so here are five techniques I find useful:

  1. Create and capture rather than consume: Carry a notepad or small journal and write out what’s on your mind (yep, with a real pad and a real pen, no apps). It doesn’t matter whether you write or draw or both, and it doesn’t matter if it looks/sounds good or not, so long as you allow yourself to express whatever has accumulated in your head. Even sitting somewhere and describing what you see can be interesting.
  2. Do some creative visualization: I wrote about this technique in an earlier post, but it’s worth resurrecting. Whether you believe it works or not, it’s a remarkably calming exercise to envision a goal or end result you want to achieve in as crisp and vivid detail in your mind as possible. Give it form, color, texture, smell — whatever will bring it to life. With repeated practice, you might be surprised with the outcome.
  3. Work out unresolved issues: Unpack a problem that’s on your mind. Don’t simply replay what went wrong over and over. Look at it from different angles, step outside your shoes, identify the things you didn’t know or understand clearly.
  4. Move around: Lots of waiting involves sitting for prolonged periods. Movement, even in small ways, can be beneficial. There are many kinds of simple, low-impact exercises that can be done while seated or that require little space.
  5. Daydream: Really, why not? Let yourself stare out the window of a bus or train, watch the clouds go by, observe people bustling about, or just take in your surroundings.

Waiting can be about much more than waiting, and it can certainly involve more than the digital pacifiers we carry around with us. We need to reframe waiting as an opportunity to disconnect from the task-driven part of ourselves that craves stimulation and reconnect with the other, quieter part that longs for stillness, peace, and reflection. Maybe we can start to think anew about waiting as the space between notes of music, a deep breath after a steep climb, a blank page dividing chapters of a book, or a welcoming patch of green space in a towering, grey city.

The “Busy” Trap

September 24, 2014


I used to think being busy was a good thing, a necessary thing. “Busy” meant your mind was occupied, gears turning, neurons firing, things getting done. A mind at work was a healthy mind, an efficient mind that saw no challenge too great, no work pile too daunting. As I’ve cycled through different phases of “busy” in my still evolving career, I’ve come to realize what a Faustean bargain working hard and overachieving really is. Lots of work may mean more billable hours, flow-like waves of productive output, and seemingly blissful distraction from other less desirable aspects of life, like loneliness or an unpleasant home environment. But the real detriment of overwork, aside from the stress and nasty health problems, is the emptiness it creates — the lack of intellectual stimulation, the creative deprivation, and the psychological alienation. At its worst, work becomes meaning when meaning cannot be salvaged from anywhere else.

This is starting to sound melodramatic, I know. The reality is that life gives us chances (or we create the chances) to stop and reflect. Sometimes a sudden event like an illness or job loss jolts our routine and challenges us to either lament the setback and curse our misfortune or seize the opportunity to re-evaluate our lives. At other times, like the gaps between big projects or right after major deadlines, we can take a deep breath, look back on how we handled ourselves in the midst of our daily grind, and think deeply about what kind of person we became in the process:

  • When and why did values flip in favor doing that “one more thing” and staying later than planned?
  • How many recreational events and activities had to be passed up for work? Did it become a pattern?
  • How many personal relationships were affected by late night or weekend work?
  • Were mornings greeted with joy or dread?
  • Did the outcome measure up to the sacrifices?

Sadly, I can picture a reverse-Feltron annual report of my former work-life experience: bars not visited, bands not heard, number of locations in NYC not visited, restaurants not frequented, etc. The real data would be considerably less appealing: hours waiting on bus/train platforms after midnight, number of mistakes noticed the next morning (after sending off “final” files), most eaten meal substitute for dinner, etc.

Everybody’s situation and experiences are different, so I won’t rattle off advice like I’m a fully rehabilitated workaholic who’s figured it all out (which I’m not, and I haven’t). I work for myself, which comes with its own demands as well as an even greater need for discipline and boundaries. I occasionally find myself walking into the same old traps, but slowly my foresight is improving. I’m getting better at framing projects with more reasonable expectations and timeframes, yet without compromising the quality of the end result or my quality of life. Most importantly, I’m actively trying to instill better patterns, like a clear start and end to the work day, unplugged weekends, more frequent visits with family and friends, and some completely unproductive — but immensely gratifying — daydreaming.

Understanding, Fast and Slow

July 31, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rational Thinking Made Tangible

March 31, 2014


Over the years, I’ve come to understand that information design work is as much a process of reasoning and investigation as it is an activity of pure design decision-making and production. In the earliest stage of my career, I thought information design was only about making graphics that put facts and figures in a clear, understandable format. I assumed that “clear” and “understandable” meant employing graphic techniques like bold color coding, ample white space, good typography, and descriptive illustration. My design education introduced me to the formal principles and standard guidelines for doing design work, like color theory and grid systems, along with the time-honored maxims like “less is more” and “if you can’t make it bigger, make it red.” I believed I had all the ingredients and the tools to do proper information design work, with a generous dose of ego thrown in.

But the more I actually did the work and the more exposure I had to different challenges, the more gaps I uncovered in my own “expertise.” If something made sense or triggered an “aha!”, the graphic designer in me attributed the success primarily to design as I understood it — the skillful arrangement of elements on a page — and little else. What I didn’t fully acknowledge was the “why” behind information design — why does that particular arrangement of elements work. And what do “clear” and “understandable” really mean?

What makes information design work?

The answer to that question stems from a widely-circulated quote attributed to Edward Tufte, from his book Visual Explanations:

Good information design is clear thinking made visible.*

What immediately strikes me about this definition is the order of ideas: clear thinking precedes visualization. It’s a simple point, but a critical one when discussing foundational aspects of information design. The ability to reason and apply rigorous logic to understanding-related challenges is what enables the effective design of information, in any form. In practice, I think “clear thinking made visible” could broadly refer to a continuum of activities:

  • applying a knowledge of principles and rules behind systems to making sense of situations
  • creating and using frameworks for organizing content (thoughts, ideas, data, text, etc)
  • designing interfaces for those frameworks using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques (To clarify, I’m using the word “interface” loosely to refer to visual, aural, spatial, tactile, and maybe even gustatory and olfactory means of accessing and interacting with information, not just technology-based interfaces.)

There’s a lot to unpack in those three bullets, perhaps in future posts. For now, I’m mainly interested in reframing information design to account for the bigger, invisible picture that happens in the “pre-visual” or “pre-artifact” stages. What I hope to see, sooner rather than later, is a shift away from the narrow graphic design-centric perspective that has hindered understanding and growth of the field and towards a cognition-centric perspective that embraces the full scope and potential of what information design is and does below the surface.

With that in mind, I propose a revision of Tufte’s quote to something like this:

Effective information design is rational thinking made tangible.

There are three key words here:

Effective: Given the ever-expanding range of stuff passing as information design these days, it would seem necessary to distinguish works as effective or ineffective at enabling understanding, rather than simply “good,” which has its own subjective meaning. The word “effective” may also promote a greater focus on how information design functions holistically, rather than just how it looks or how it works alone.

Rational: Saying “rational” instead of “clear” thinking helps put a finer point on the type of thinking involved in information design — thinking that subscribes to reason; “clarity” alone may only suggest that thoughts are distinct and well-defined, complete statements, but they may lack any basis in logic.

Tangible: Information design can take many forms once it has passed through the conceptual, “figuring out” stages. The word “tangible” need not only refer to objects or artifacts but to those things that can be experienced directly.

Information design has a long way to go before it will break free from conventional notions of what it is and can — or can’t — be. Greater awareness of the upstream information design process is necessary, as are required studies in cognitive science and logic. Understanding the brain and how it works, from the theoretical to the practical levels, should be the next wave in information design education and practice, not more overemphasis on filling our design toolkit and producing dazzling outputs.


*The full quote is “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” After briefly Googling the quote for other instances of its use, I came across what could be its inspiration, by Bill Wheeler: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” It isn’t surprising that both writing and information design can be described in the same way.

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