Information design is not an emerging field or subject area. This point has been highly discussed in an assortment of online and print articles, conferences and discussion groups. On-going debates defining its boundaries, its commonalities and differences with data visualisation, information architecture, and user-experience design pop up daily. Countless books have been published tackling the different dimensions of information design. To name a few: Tufte, Wurman, Baer, Visocky O’Grady. However, lack of clarity remains around information design (e.g. in terms of the role and tasks of information designers, applications, methodologies, etc.).
This post is an attempt to shed light on the following dimensions of information design:
– Disciplinary condition
– Historical cycles
– Current state
[Note: The term ‘design’ is used throughout this post as a generic term to refer to ‘graphic design.’ The term ‘information graphics’ is used here to refer to graphic representations of data, information, concepts or knowledge, but not related to visual journalism context only]
Information design has been defined from many different perspectives:
- “The main goal in information design is clarity of communication. The development of the academic discipline of information design was put together with elements from a large number of academic disciplines.’ (Pettersson, 2010)
- “The translating of complex, unorganised, or unstructured data into valuable, meaningful information’ (Society for Technical Communication in Baer, 2008)
- “Information design makes complex information easier to understand and to use” (AIGA in Baer, 2008:18)
- “Information design is about the clear and effective presentation of information. It involves a multi and interdisciplinary approach to communication, combining skills from graphic design, technical and non-technical authoring, psychology, communication theory, and cultural studies” (Frank Thissen in Baer, 2008)
- “Information design is all about the psychology and physiology of how users access, learn, and remember information; the impact of colours, shapes, and patterns, learning styles.” (Luigi Canali De Rossi in Baer, 2008:19)
- “Information design addresses the organisation and presentation of data: its transformation into valuable, meaningful information.” (Nathan Shedroff in Baer, 2008)
It can be inferred that some authors referred to information design as a ‘discipline’, and others as a ‘field’, which leads to my first question:
Is information design a field or a discipline?
The first step to properly answer this question would be to zoom out and have a closer look to ‘design’, and then pop the following question:
Is design a field or a discipline?
Even today, the answer to this question could be subject of many debates. More than 100 years later since it has been defined as an independent area of study than art, its disciplinary condition is still questionable (Poggenpohl, 1979; Harland, 2009; Triggs, 2011). At this point, it is worth analysing the necessary requirements that should be fulfilled by a field to be considered a discipline (Erlhoff & Marshall, 2008). It must have:
- A particular body of knowledge
- Professional practice nurtured by and evolving because of education rather than mere experience
- Institutions of higher education and universities with an increasing role in the development of its professionals
- Well-developed internal structures
- Consolidated design research community
- Understanding of its methodologies and strategies
Design certainly does fulfil the first three requirements, and it could be said that its community is putting great efforts on improving and strengthen the last three of them. Therefore, design could be defined as a discipline (an immature one, but a discipline) (Owen, 1991; Cross, 2007).
In the case of information design, its disciplinary condition seems to be more unclear. Some commonalities do emerge among current definitions, which stress the multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach of this subject area. However, a strict and precise definition of its boundaries, objectives, applications, history, problem-solving process and strategies has not achieved consensus yet.
In short, while the disciplinary condition of design seems to have reached a more agreed status and certainty fulfils a good majority of discipline requirements, the growing areas of design —such as information design, service design, communication design, experience design— would be better described as ‘fields’, rather than ‘disciplines’.
Information design community
The information design community is not very big, but it is spread. When one starts digging into different sources looking for data (from visual examples, debates, conferences to more academic contents) related to the field, the same names arise. This could be an indicator of the fewer designers and professionals working in the field. Then, based on my background and present experience information designers appear to live in (small and big) bubbles. As an example, one bubble is Latin American countries. Information designers based there do not usually communicate with or have access to the rest of the world, although, mainly everyone speaks English as a second language. In terms of resources, they tend to be able to access US literature more easily than that of Europe, however professional practice and research developments are quite different than the ones happening here in Europe. US itself is, for me, a different big bubble in which many things are going on but, for an unknown reason, they are not as widespread as they could be. Another bubble is Spain and Portugal, in which language does seem to be a bigger barrier, although they do have access to online resources (e.g. through university networks) and books. Europe is the bubble I tend to be more familiar with, but here they do not have access to Spanish literature. Although it is not a huge and varied market, some interesting authors and books can be found (e.g. Spanish translations of Moles’s  books and Costa’s [1987, 1989, 1992] books). Middle Eastern and even further countries are another huge bubble, I am certain that information design stuff is happening over there but I do not have many links with that community. All these and other bubbles do not seem to be really connected to each other.
The info design community is divided. Academic and professional information designers do not seem to be on the same page. There is an immense gap between academia and industry, although information design has both a practical and a theoretical component (Pettersson, 2010). Predictions of positive links between knowledge generated and experience obtained through research programmes and more practical jobs have been stressed at the beginning of the 90s (when first design PhD programmes started to emerged), but design companies and agencies seem reluctant to adopt or invest daily on research to develop projects further or achieve more successful results. Information designers would benefit from having ‘theoretical knowledge and practical experiences and skills’ as part of their decision-making and problem-solving processes (Petterson, 2010), however a common characteristic among design practitioners is to describe design methodologies (and other rational procedures that could aid decision-making) as time consuming and unnecessary.
To some extent, the persistent gap between academia and industry could be related to design education early days, around 1920s, when first undergraduate programmes were defined. Since then, design education has followed ‘the fine arts model, in which personal exploration replaces research’ (Owen, 1991). It is worth mentioning that it seems to be an increasing (but quite slowly) concern from both sides to narrow the gap.
Information design does have a long trajectory. Cuneiform writings on clay tablets could be highlighted as early examples in which graphic language was used as a way of communication. Historically, the evolution and growth of information design has been a cyclical process, composed of dark periods and golden moments (Friendly, 2009). Artistic movements, visions of the world, World Wars and technological breakthroughs have had a core influence in the development of information design. The historical overview presented here aims to illustrate key cycles in the information design evolution from the XV century to its current state.
Golden moment: Emerging graphic forms
During this period the artistic movement Renaissance (XV and XVI) produced a change in the way the world was understood, replacing the Theo-centrism that had characterised the Medieval Period with an anthropocentric view. During the XVIII century, information visualisations developed in prior years were enhanced and diversified as a result of the beginnings of statistical theory and the systematic gathering of empirical data. Some of the new emerging graphic typologies were abstract graphics, and thematic maps (maps showing more than geographical positions). Although technological innovations such as colour printing and lithography (1796) facilitated and enabled the reproduction of graphic forms, many of them only appeared in publications with limited circulation, and therefore were not accessed by a wide audience.
Dark ages: Blind production
Particularly, the first half of the XIX century saw explosive growth in statistical graphics and thematic maps. All kinds of graphic forms emerged, such as bar graphs and pie charts, histograms, line graphs, time lines, contour maps (1843), isothermic graphs (1817), parabolic graphs, cartograms (1826), dot-maps (1830), transport maps (1837), and combined graphs. Enthusiasm for visualising information resulted in an over production of graphics with not aesthetic harmony, making understanding more obscure rather than more accessible. Up to this point, aesthetic rules were based on personal tastes, as no visualisation principles or theories had been established.
Golden moment: Consolidation years
At the end of the third decade of this century, two ways of visualising information coexisted. One was characterised by the use of more conventional tabular charts, and the other by the use of more complex ways of graphic representation. The first step towards the consolidation of information visualisation as a way to enhance understanding took place in Europe with the official establishment of statistics offices and the organisation of the first international conferences on Statistics. Various statistical companies and agencies were established in several countries, generating research interests in this area and supporting the growing relevance of statistical information for social planning, industrialisation, commerce and transport. As a result, public interest also arose for the translation of research data into graphics.
Towards the end of this period, information graphics were widely spread, at the extent that everyone with imagination was creating graphic forms. The visualisation of information, and thus information graphics, as a way of communication was officially recognised by governmental agencies and accepted in publications as a standard information source.
Dark ages: Unsettled times
The early XX century was a time of changes in social, political, cultural, and economic life that radically altered several aspects. World War I (1914-1919) mobilised Western civilization, changing society’s view of life. In this context, ‘graphic forms of communication underwent a series of creative revolutions that questioned their values, their approach to the organisation of space and their role in society’ (Meggs, 1998).
The initial enthusiasm about visualising data was replaced by mass production of information graphics that overemphasized aesthetics at the cost of content. This process intensified until graphics were reduced to mere images with no additional written information. Though attractive and evocative, those graphics did not represent facts or transmit data accurately. Information graphics became commonplace, but devalued. They were daily applied in governmental, business and scientific environments. This period was mainly characterised by the loss of technical precision and rigour.
Golden moment: Information science
With the invention of the first computers in the 1940s, new visualisation techniques and languages emerged, and high-resolution graphics were developed. Computers offered the possibility of constructing new and old graphic forms with specialised software. During the second half of the XX century, new methods made possible three-dimensional information representation, which initiated the development of multi-variable graphics. These changes led to new uncertainties, which intensified the interest in theoretical aspects of graphic methods. The works of Jacques Bertin, Karl Gerstner and John W. Tukey contributed to the definition of essential dimensions of information design and the exploration of new platforms.
Once information technology became widespread, towards the end of this period, the visualisation of information was enriched and mechanised. While, both Edward Tufte and Richard S. Wurman pointed out the conceptual aspect of information design as core to achieve ‘understanding’, clarity, transparency and unambiguous messages.
New challenges arose: multivariable graphics, animations of statistical processes, and theories based on perception, related to finding ways to improve communication and understanding between the reader and the data.
Current state: Information age
Nowadays, a wide range of disciplines, components and steps are involved in the translation from data to visual outcomes. Consequently, the structure of the organisation and visualisation of information has changed and is changing very quickly, becoming more complex and losing rigour every day. The following three areas exemplify the current state of information design:
Overvalued technology: Tools and techniques for the manipulation of data and translation into graphic forms are developed daily, and the Internet has enabled their universal and easy access. Therefore the visualisation of information has become accessible to everyone. Anyone with electronic devices, specialised software programmes and time seems to be able to create an information graphic. Unfortunately, in most cases, no extra special knowledge is required. Consequently, visual languages and ways of structuring information are constantly renewed; information visualisations are unceasing created and, in many cases, presenting inaccurate or obscure information. Going back in time, the first technological wave in the early XIX century triggered the production of information graphics with similar characteristics than most current ones: significant loss of communication quality.
Unintelligible content: A considerable percentage of information design solutions often display data that make communication more intricate rather than more accessible, with the message not effectively understood (Wurman, 1989; Visocky O’Grady and Visocky O’Grady, 2008). Overloaded and unclear outcomes abound, adding confusion rather than clarity. As the production of information visualisations has rocketed over the last 10 years, the symptoms of information anxiety (Wurman, 1989) have become clearer and commonplace among people. However, this is not a current phenomenon. To some extent, (again) the beginning of both the XIX and XX centuries were also characterised by over production of information visualisations in which content seemed to have been relegated to a less important place than that of aesthetic quality.
Pressurised working conditions: Computers and other devices do have dramatically reduced production times, facilitating the creation of information visualisations. However, as a consequence of globalisation, the nature of professional practice structures in industry (e.g. design agencies, studios, companies) has changed (Dorst and Lawson, 2009). Conceptual and production schedules have been shortened; the development of design solutions is often required in extremely tight working times. The reduction of conceptual design hours is leading to outputs with reduced quality. In other words, reduced productivity results could be seen as a consequence of ill-conceived conceptual design (Baya and Leifer, 1996 cited in Cross et al., 1996). Analysis, understanding and organisation stages seemed to have been replaced with technical and aesthetic exploration.
In short, information design seems to be approaching to the end of another cycle, which, unfortunately, seems to be evolving (again) towards a period of dark ages.
Steps (that may lead) to a golden moment
The current information age could be seen as a product of massive technology development combined with the easy access to information and global communication. Some problems from past periods, such as lack of graphic resources and a wide range of graphic forms, time-consuming graphic experimentation, and creation of multidimensional graphics, have been addressed, and new ones have arisen. In order to avoid dark ages, a more holistic approach may be required, in which members of all communities involved in the information design sphere work together. Four communities have a key role in the evolution and growth of information design:
Information design communities should be more integrated. Tools and platforms for global communications are available. Languages cannot be seen as barriers anymore. Sharing knowledge, insights, thoughts and theories is key for improving and learning, and could be a way to initiate and strengthen connections.
Although there is an increasing demand for information designers (e.g. from marketing agencies, social research, healthcare, science, politics), companies and agencies seem to be reluctant to integrate them into initial stages of the problem-solving process. Often, information designers are contacted at the very end of the process to visualise content. When information designers are involved since the very beginning, their information management expertise could greatly benefit a project and consequently make a company/agency achieve even more successful results. Moreover, at a more basic level, industry would benefit from having in house information designers, who would help with the application of basic principles, guidelines, and theories, and ensuring they are adopted as part of the daily practice.
Clients/users have an important role to help information design move towards a more rigours, and less self-promoting phase. Clients/users could start requesting the involvement of information designers at early stages to improve quality and success. In addition, clients/user have the power to stop the massive production of marketing information graphics by demanding thorough information design solutions and (again) quality and transparency instead of quantity.
Since approximately the 80s, the research community has been working towards the definition of a strong information design skeleton that could help strengthen the required aspects to be considered a discipline. Academic efforts would benefit from being more practice-led and explicitly indicating how they could be applied in the professional practice context. Among others, complicated, complex, not applicable, too serious seem to be persistent terms to describe research environments. Therefore, scholars could gain extraordinary professional complicity and collaboration from making their work more accessible and available to wider audiences.
In terms of education, information design would certainly benefit from stronger and more defined undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. The few current programmes tackle information design from quite diverse aspects. Some of them emphasise its cognitive side, others its aesthetic principles while others focus on more technical or managerial aspects. This is probably a logical consequence of its multidisciplinary approach and evidence of the varied range of disciplines involved in well-defined information design. However, some general guidelines may be needed, which does not mean that all information design programmes should have exactly the same curricula, but to share similar aims, objectives, major subjects and principles, to name a few aspects. So far, this would be hard to achieve as key aspects of information design are still to be defined.
Rome was not built in a day. Therefore, a shift to more thinking and conceptual stages, in which self-promoting and aesthetics do not have the leading role, will not happen from one day to another. It will be a process, but someone has to put the first stone. And, if all communities work consistently (consistency is another key word) and together with the same objective in mind the transition process to a brighter period would happen in a closer immediacy.
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