Towards a unified view of Information Design

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Information design is being defined from many fields and disciplines

Definitions of information design are varied, but they tend to be too narrow, too broad, too vague, or unclear. An agreed and integrated definition of information design which fully determines its goals, boundaries, processes, skill sets, rationale, and range of problems it can solve, is hard to find. However, in order to evolve, teach and be ‘improved upon by future generations of practitioners’, the information design field needs that definition (Jacobson, 1999).

Ongoing discussions about different aspects of the field, e.g. its goals, the role of technology, the role of the user and user-centred methodologies, to name a few, are common place in and out the information design community, conferences, and books, but little consensus has been reached. Interestingly, back in 1994, Jacobson asked the three following questions to an expert group of contributors for his book:

  1. Is there such a thing as information design?
  2. If there is, what might constitute a formal theory of information design?
  3. How can we implement this theory in a systematic practice that can be described to others and taught to new entrants to our field?

Today, the last two questions still have uncertain answers (I want to believe that it is unquestionable the existence of the information design field). Having mostly read information design and field-related literature, I was curious to know how non-design related authors define and approach the field. With this idea in mind, I visited the library and found three books, each of them tackling information design from their own sphere: Library Studies and Information Science, Pedagogy and Teaching, and Information Design. After getting familiar with those views, I identified three key issues that could be accentuating the lack of having that needed unified information design view, and widening the gap among practitioners, teachers and researchers, somehow, related to the field. To some extent, these issues are also connected to Jacobson’s questions.

1. Lack of combined work

Diversity is good and healthy. Different views generate new perspectives and unravel unseen approaches. But when new perspectives don’t acknowledge prior work, communication problems may arise and there is no real contribution to knowledge. This is a common situation when people work on their own ‘bubbles’, and don’t know what has been done before or is being done next doors, or what problems have been solved and ones are still to be solved. Although parallel roads could extend in the same direction, they never converge at one point. i.e. there is no progress.

Broadly speaking, the information design community seems to be immersed in that situation. Each field defines information design through their own crystals. Three books, three definitions. The information designer is defined as:

  • A knowledge builder (Tonfoni, 1998). Similar to Wurman‘s information architecture concept, information design has been defined as building knowledge or constructing meaning. From this perspective, the field is concerned with the organisation of ‘wide information territories’ into ‘consistently fuctionalised knowledge buildings.’ This definition emphasises the ‘information’ part of the field and stresses the need ‘to develop a broader vision of information’.
  • The designer of understanding and learning (Jacobson, 1999). Information designers have been defined as practitioners concerned with ‘the systematic arrangement and use of communication carriers, channels and tokens to increase the understanding of those participating in a specific conversation or discourse.’ They ‘acknowledge and use the interactive nature of communication to convey meaning and heighten understanding among all parties involved in an activity or event.’
  • A storyteller (Rice-Lively and Chen, 2006). More recently, information designers have been described as professionals who deal with the planning and organisation of information, including marketing strategist, graphic designers, and computer engineers (Rice-Lively and Chen, 2006). In other words, everyone managing or related to information could be considered an information designer.

All above definitions are equally valuable and, in some cases, complementary, but none of them covers the full potential of information designers. The first one mostly relates information design to webdesign-related products, the second doesn’t contemplate the inter/multidisciplinary side of the field, while the last approach is too broad and doesn’t express the need of a specific set of skills for information designers.

Problem: Definitions vary from taking into account information design as a very specific and narrow field which don’t consider its full value, to be excessively broad including any field dealing with information.

2. Lack of robust theoretical corpus

Jacobson’s (1999) second question pointed out the need to construct a theoretical body to help information design evolve as a field, and, eventually, consolidate as a discipline. Back then, he stressed that most scholars studying and writing about information design were related to the social sciences, human social behaviour, human computer interactions and architecture, instead of being information designers. In line with Jacobson’s ideas, Tonfoni (1998) highlighted the fact that both practitioners and theoreticians weren’t building on previous theories and discussions, making difficult the construction of a well-defined basis for the field. Today, the picture hasn’t radically changed, although the community of information design scholars has grown and diversified.

Information design can be mostly seen as a practice-led field, but both theoretical models and practical tools are essential to learn, practice and teach its full potential. Both authors suggested ways to strengthen information design theory, build its conceptual basis, and facilitate knowledge gaining. For example, one way would be by teaching frameworks and models as information packages (Tonfoni, 1998), while the other highlights the need of ‘tried-and-true theory backed up by case studies’ (Jacobson, 1999), for which a selection of well-planned, well-solved and effective cases is essential.

Process is an important part of information design. To effectively solve problems, information designers need to follow, adopt, and/or define a process model to help them design, plan, and organise information. Rice-Lively and Chen (2006) introduce the concept of ‘Scenario’ to describe the information design process. Scenarios, as processes, guide information designers in the planning and definition of the ‘information system’. Information designers ‘interact with information and information systems in a variety of systems’, and ‘[their] actions rely on feedback from those information systems’. Therefore, information designers need to learn (and be taught) the importance of having ‘scenarios’ or processes, so then they can adopt and use them to improve understanding and plan interactions.

Problem: There are no common information design foundational theories or process models which makes hard the transmission of knowledge and skills to future generations, to work with rigour in practice, and adopt a systematic way of problem-solving, necessary to gain thorough understanding. Weak and not-rigorous enough problem-solving methodologies abound.

3. Lack of thorough conceptual design thinking

For many information designers, technology developments have been a blessing (e.g. reducing working hours and  helping production efficiency), but they have been a curse too: many information designers have reduced or replaced thinking hours with hands-on tasks. Designers and clients tend to pay more attention to technology-related aspects than to concept development. Interestingly, Jacobson (1999) pointed out that information design solutions should be concerned with ‘find[ing] a purpose and reward in society, not only applying fashion and mascara’ and be ‘unencumbered by traditional media limitations.’ He added that information designers should work ‘with fields of meaning not with materials used to transit meaning’ (Jacobson, 1999). ‘Information design is not a matter of more or less. Rather it results from harnessing the determination to engender better understanding to the appropriate skills for doing so.’

To be fair, there is an increasing awareness about the role of conceptual design among designers and clients. However, information design rationale is not being systematically taught or practiced. Basic aspects of the field are still blurred. For example, the fine line between graphic and information designers generates confusion, and their tasks and skills are frequently mistaken. Information designers need to learn a specific sub-set of skills which are not related to graphic skills but to a way of thinking and solving problems. Information designers have a more systematic and structured approach to problem-solving.

Problem: Conceptual design does not have a key role in education and practice yet, and is often underestimated. Ill-conceived and unintelligible but visually pleasing information design solutions abound.

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A more unified view of information design

It could be argued that the texts covered here don’t belong to the Design sphere, and therefore they don’t address pure design concerns in their approaches. However, the same analysis has been done before with definitions coming from pure design fields, and maybe not the same ones, but other principles equally relevant for the information design field have been overlooked too. Each sphere looks at the problem (i.e. how information design is defined) from their own perspectives, but not from a holistic view. A more holistic view would encourage open dialogue and combined efforts, while building on prior work, emphasize the need of a robust theoretical basis and state the relevance of conceptual design.

– Jacobson, R. (1999) Information Design. London: The MIT Press
– Rice-Lively, M.L. and Chen, H.L. (2006) Scenarios and Information Design. A user-oriented practical guide. Oxford: Chandos Publishing
– Tonfoni, G (1998) Information Design. The Knowledge Architect’s toolkit. England:The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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7 comments

  1. M. Afzal Bhatti

    Specific context, about Information Design. In my view Run Pettersson’s work about information Design should be referred to cover communication and message design aspects in today’s information design

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  3. Tony Pritchard

    Here is my adaption of Peter Wildbur’s (if memory serves correct) definition: information design is the selection, organisation and presentation of data in a form that is of most value to an intended user. It’s pretty broad but the best I could come up with way back when. http://tonypritchard.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/what-is-information-design/

    I think we’re in a time where information visualisation is really developing it’s unique sphere. Postgraduate design courses seem to have adopted it as a specialism. We have at the London College of Communication. It’s a pity it seems to have been dropped at undergraduate level, but whatever a course is called I think information design will survive. Students seem to be too interested in it. Here’s a link to a soon to be published which uses 100 infographics to cover 13.8 billion years. http://vimeo.com/66145156

    • sheilapontis

      Thanks Tony! Didn’t know that information design is not anymore as an undergraduate pathway/programme, but happy to know that students are still interested in the field.

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