Defining Information Design

Definitions from various sources (books, papers, website) were coded using a thematic analysis approach to learn how the understanding of information design has evolved throughout the last fifteen years.

Definitions from various sources (books, papers, website) were coded using a thematic analysis approach to learn how the understanding of information design has evolved throughout the last fifteen years.

Back in 2000, Jacobson wrote that a “unitary definition [of information design] was elusive,” and that the information design community needed “a reliable lexicon and a tried-and-true theory backed up with case studies” in order to “systematise and pass along our knowledge” (p.3). Back then “the theory [was] sketchy and the case studies [were] scarce.” Today (fifteen years later), the information design community actively writes and theorizes about various aspects of the field (e.g. methods, tools, skills, processes), and case studies abound. However, somehow, his words still reflect our knowledge of information design: we are unclear of what information design is.

In my quest to shed light to information design, throughout the last fifteen years I have compiled a list of information design definitions from books, papers and the Internet. The field has been defined from many different angles: graphic design, journalism, information sciences, psychology, social sciences, cognitive sciences… but I couldn’t find one definition that accounted for all key dimensions of information design. I decided to create a broader definition, combining all of them. For that, I coded and analysed the definitions I had using the following six concepts as the core themes of the analysis:

AIMS | AUDIENCE | OUTPUTS | PROCESS | FUNCTION | FORM

This analysis let me identify whether the definitions were tackling all themes, which themes were implicitly discussed and which ones not mentioned at all, and how the understanding of information design has evolved. This post presents a set of representative definitions only, and a summary of the analysis to illustrate the process.

What is Information Design?

1999: By way of introduction: guidelines and design specifications in information design (Zwaga, Boersema, Hoonhout)

Information is developed to let the perceivers know something about the external world; to let them comprehend something. Information developed to be used independently of the originator of the organisation of the data has to be given some concrete form. This form is added to the information substance. Substance and form of the information, and the user are therefore the determining factors in information design. When developing an information design product, the aim is to extend the boundaries set by instrumental constrains and user constrains as far as possible in the direction of the purpose of the information. (…) The success of a design depends on the coordination of two sets of constraints: information with the appropriate means for action, and the means for action with the appropriate information. (p. xxxi)

…one can say that information design is first the development of an effective organisation of data to change this data into information, and then the development of an instrument (often a graphic product) to transfer the information in such a way that it adds to the user’s knowledge base, or guides the user’s task performance in an effective and convincing way. (p.xxxii)

2000: Information Design (Robert Jacobson)

My own belief is that there is a unique design practice that can be identified as information design. Its purpose is the systematic arrangement and use of communication carriers, channels, and tokens to increase the understanding of those participating in a specific conversation or discourse. (…) The information designer initially works with fields of meaning, not with the materials used to transmit meaning. (…) Because the success of information design is so context-dependent, there is almost no way to predict scientifically for any particular setting what will work and what will not. (p.4-5)

2010: Information design-principles and guidelines (Rune Pettersson)

Information design, ID, may be described in the following way: “In order to satisfy the information needs of the intended receivers information design comprises analysis, planning, presentation and understanding of a message – its content, language and form. Regardless of the selected medium, a well- designed information set, with its message, will satisfy aesthetic, economic, ergonomic, as well as subject matter requirements.” (168)

The main goal in information design is clarity of communication. In order to fulfill this goal all messages must be accurately designed, produced and distributed, and later correctly interpreted and understood by members of the intended audience. These processes are guided by principles, performed with the help of tools and influenced by the social context. (p.168)

2012: Designing information (Joel Katz)

Our job as information designers is to clarify, to simplify, and to make information accessible to the people who will need it and use it to make important decisions. Information needs to be in a form they can understand and use meaningfully, and to tell the truth of what things mean and how they work. (p.10)

It is not enough to know the base data -in its most literal sense- of an information graphic. One has to understand what it means, which requires knowing how the particular set of information being visualised was selected and, from there, the designer’s point of view. (…) It could be said that the task of information designers in the past was to create “information” where no data existed, and that the task of information designers today is to refine and reduce an overabundance of data into meaningful and usable information. Information design -when successful- whether in print or the web, or in the environmentpresents the functional balance of the meaning of the information, the skills and inclinations of he designer, and the perceptions, education, experience, and needs of the audience. (p.18)

2013: Design for information (Isabel Meirelles)

Information design is broadly used to describe communication practices in which the main purpose is to inform, in contrast to persuasive approaches more commonly used in practices such advertising. Infographics is one of the possible outputs within the large information design discipline. Other possible outputs involve the design of systems, which can be exemplified by information systems, wayfinding systems, and visualisations of statistical data. All examples share the common objective of revealing patterns and relationships not known or not so easily deduced without the aid of the visual representation of information. (p.11)

Independent of the term, the analytical methods, the media, and the source field of knowledge, I use information design and information visualisation interchangeably in this book. (p.13)

2015: Information design (Wikipedia)

Information design is the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it. The term has come to be used specifically for graphic design for displaying information effectively, rather than just attractively or for artistic expression. Information design is closely related to the field of data visualization and is often taught as part of graphic design courses.

Creating a broader definition

Overall, all definitions seem to agree on the core aim of information design (i.e. understanding). Although some of them do state the key role of the audience in information design, not all of them, explicitly discuss it. Since early on (and increasingly), the emphasis seems to have been on explaining the process and different conceptual design activities (e.g. analysis, organisation, simplification), and not so much on describing the variety of information design solutions that could be developed, or the tools used by information designers to create them. Interestingly, none of the definitions discusses the role of research during conceptual design in order to gain further understanding (of the problem or the audience) nor at the end of the process in order to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of a solution.

Below is the suggested, collective definition addressing the six themes used in the analysis:

Information design aims to “increase” or “foster efficient and effective understanding” of “those participating in a specific conversation or discourse” or of “something about the external world.” This understanding helps “inform, simplify, and [to] make information accessible” while improving “clarity of communication.” Understanding can be achieved “through systematic arrangement and use of communication carriers, channels, and tokens,” which facilitates “revealing patterns and relationships not known or not so easily deduced without the aid of the visual representation of information.”

The information design process “comprises analysis, planning, presentation and understanding of a message – its content, language and form,” and is “guided by principles, performed with the help of tools and influenced by the social context.” The process starts with understanding the problem, and the data/content. This stage is referred to as conceptual design where “information designer[s] initially work with fields of meaning, not with the materials used to transmit meaning.” To make sense of data/content and “refine and reduce an overabundance of data into meaningful and usable information,” the first step is “the development of an effective organisation of data.” Research studies can be also conducted to gain further understanding of the problem, and greater familiarity of the audience. When working with complex data/content, “[the information designer] has to understand what it means, which requires knowing how the particular set of information being visualised was selected.” This indicates the need for working with content experts.

Information design solutions must “respond [to] the perceptions, education, experience, and [information] needs of the audience” or “intended receivers.” The audience is “the people who will need [a solution] and use it to make important decisions.” When a solution is “use[d] meaningfully,” “correctly interpreted and understood by members of the intended audience,” it “adds to the [audience]’s knowledge base, or guides the [audience]’s task performance in an effective and convincing way.” 

Information design solutions can be “instruments,” “product[s],” or “messages” created for different media including “print,” “the web,” or “the environment.” Examples of solutions are “infographics” or “the design of systems, which can be exemplified by information systems, wayfinding systems, and visualisations of statistical data.” Sometimes, information design solutions can also be less tangible artifacts, like stories, strategies or recommendations.

Regardless of the selected medium,” a well-conceived information design solution “has to be given some concrete form” and “present the functional balance of the meaning of the information, the skills and inclinations of he designer” while “displaying information effectively.” The form of the solution “must be accurately designed” and “tell the truth of what things mean and how they work,” “rather than just [being] attractively or for artistic expression.” Solutions must “satisfy aesthetic, economic, ergonomic, as well as subject matter requirements.” 

– Jacobson, R.E. (2000). Information design. MIT press.
– Katz, J. (2012). Designing information: Human factors and common sense in information design. John Wiley & Sons.
– Meirelles, I. (2013). Design for Information: An Introduction to the Histories, Theories, and Best Practices Behind Effective Information Visualizations. Rockport publishers.
– Pettersson, R. (2010). Information design-principles and guidelines. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29(2), 167-182.
– Wikipedia (2015). Information design
– Zwaga, H., Boersema, T., & Hoonhout, H. (1999). By way of introduction: guidelines and design specifications in information design. Visual Information For Everyday Use: Design And Research Perspectives.
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9 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Typografie und Translation and commented:
    Informationsdesign ist ein weites Feld …

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  4. Daniela Dunn

    Great breakdown and summary of all the information design definitions! Very helpful, thorough and interesting! I’ve been looking for a definition myself and have not been able to find one that “satisfies” my need to be exact and all-encompassing. Your definition includes all the broadness of the information design discipline. The question remains (for me anyways): How do I explain it in an “elevator speech”? Or to someone who asks me (and I still get that question all the time): So what is Information Design? 😉

    • sheilapontis

      Hi Daniela, many thanks for your comment. Glad you found the post useful. I think the ingredients to write an ‘elevator’ definition are there. It’s just about selecting the keywords that would best represent the core of the field, and then put them together. You cannot say absolutely everything about what an info designer (or any other professional) does in an elevator (nor someone would be expecting that much information) but just the core of what you do (and maybe how you do that). For sure I would choose the words: understanding, clarity, visualising/drawing, connections/patters, user-centred. Hope this helps. Also, would like to know, what has been your answer to the question ‘what is info design?’

      • Daniela Dunn

        Thank you for your reply and your input on the ‘elevator speech’! It helped me – once again – to rethink my ‘definition’ of info design.

        So far if I was to explain information design, if it was very brief, I would simply say: “Information design means designing any kind of information in a user-friendly way.” A lot of times the questions following is: “So for websites?” Then I usually say something like: “It can be any kind of information. These days we are surrounded, constantly ‘bombarded’ by information everywhere. Websites, the internet, yes. But also newspapers, magazines, flyers, brochures, user manuals, in museums, in advertising, anywhere you notice any kind of information. Information design is about designing information in a way so the user will be able to easily and clearly perceive, process and understand it in whichever form.” If I’m talking to someone who knows more about this, I’d also throw in terms like ‘target group evaluation, survey, gestalt principles/grouping’, etc.

        What do you think of my definition? It doesn’t include all of the words you suggested, but some.

        Actually, I was talking to a graphic designer today and although she knew and even uses some of the principles/methods in her own work, she didn’t really know it was information design. She then said: “Ok, so you can work in Marketing.”, and then asked me to be more focused in the description of what I do, my skills, my expertise (especially in regards to job search). But because information design is so broad and can’t just be put into one ‘drawer’, it can be an advantage, but can also be an issue when someone wants a more specific answer. That is my experience anyways… 🙂

      • sheilapontis

        Thanks Daniela, it is good to have the chance to reflect about something that is often too familiar and therefore we don’t necessarily stop to think about it in different ways.
        When defining info design, I think it is important to make clear that its main aim is “understanding” or facilitating/enhancing understanding of information, regardless of the medium or context. In most cases, visual means are involved but that isn’t a must, because some info design principles aren’t necessarily related to visuals (e.g. classification, hierarchical organisation, etc.). People tend to say ‘websites’ because nowadays everything digital and related to the web seems to be in people’s mind all the time. But there are plenty of old info design examples which precede the internet era that you could use to provide as examples.
        No sure the connection with marketing that your friend mentioned? For sure, info designers can work with marketers in a project, as they can do with scientists.
        Yes, info design is interdisciplinary, in the sense that it is influenced by many disciplines (e.g. info sciences, journalism, graphic design, logic, etc.). But, overall, I think that the main issue with info design isn’t its ‘broadness’, but the lack of a unified definition. Paradoxically, clarity is another key word of this field, but there is lack of clarity within the community which sometimes can generate confusion when trying to define or understand (for those unfamiliar with it) what info design is.
        Hope this helps.

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