Bridging Information Design Theory & Practice!

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Photo 1 [Top-left]: Attendees interacting with the poster stations during the event. Photos 2 & 3: Attendees discussing some of the responses after we revealed the answers. Photo 4 [Bottom-right]: Poster stations 4, 5 and 6 with attendees responses. – Information Design NYC Meet Up Event – March 15, 2016.

On Tuesday, Sense (my business partner and myself) organised the first Information Design Meet up event of 2016 at General Assembly New York City. Around 40 information designers, UX designers, visual thinkers, data visualisers and designers among other professionals participated in the event. We created interactive posters to trigger discussion on key aspects of information design, cards with questions for each attendee to help start conversation during networking, and a talk to provide context and an overview of what information design is, why it is important and who is involved.

Overall, most attendees have a general understanding of the field, but all wanted to learn more and had many questions without answers. The last two poster stations were the most popular ones, generating intrigue in the room and also indicating a big need for clarity in the field. Below a summary of the event and three takeaways.

Event structure

At the beginning and at the end of the event, attendees had the opportunity to test their knowledge and understanding of information design by interacting with six playful and informative poster stations. In each station they were asked about a different aspect of information design.

Poster Station 1: What is information design? This poster welcomed thoughts and drawings to help define the field. This was also a window into the different views that people have on information design.
Poster Station 2: Who are you? To get a better sense of who was in the room, everyone was invited to write something about themselves.
Poster Station 3: What is the clearest? Effectiveness and clarity are key words in information design. This station explored both topics by asking everyone to have a closer look to NY subway maps that have been created in the last 50 years. We included a range of examples from Massimo Vignelli’s geometric map (1972) to Max Roberts’s radical map exploration (2013).
Poster Station 4: Who did what?  This station took an analytical look into the past and also to the female role in information design. We included the work of four women designers that we considered key and that have helped advanced the field.
Poster Station 5: What do these mean? Meaning is another key aspect in information design. Some decisions related to aesthetics and visual language can make a message crystal clear or can make it obscure and ambiguous. This station explored the meaning of ISO and laundry symbols.
Poster Station 6: Who does what? Learning about the current state of the field is as important as exploring its history. This station provided an overview of current, real job descriptions and titles showing the high ambiguity involved in information design and related fields.

We opened the event presenting a wide range of possible information design applications followed by a high level process about how designers work and stressing the key role of understanding the user and designing for their needs. Then we suggested eight lenses that can be used to understand the bigger picture of information design, including key forces and streams that have influenced and are influencing the field, and the wide spectrum of people involved in the community. The talk also provided thoughtful questions to start networking and reflections. After the talk, attendees paired up using their colourful cards to network, and then team up in front of each poster station to discuss the responses.

Takeaways

Yesterday & Today. The talk, the cards and posters stressed the relevance of analysing and remembering the past to better understand the present, and, in some cases, to help determine where to go or what decisions to make in the future. Prior writings, books, ideas, theories, frameworks are endless sources of learning and inspiration. Students, practitioners, teachers and researchers should see them as stepping stones to strengthen the field, identify needed lines of investigation, and design a more effective practice. To some extent, the information design community is relatively small, but also quite spread. There are active groups, associations and individuals in many European countries and many areas here in the States, but not many of them are working together. Therefore, in some cases, there are similar streams and work happening in parallel that would greatly benefit from communicating with and learning from each other. To move to the next step and grow into a discipline, we (information designers) need to build on what has already been done, and join forces, rather than reinventing the wheel and work in isolation.

Men & Women. Something that became very evident during the process of creating the materials for the event is the scarce presence of female names that have historically contributed somehow to information design. Of course, Florence Nightingale and Marie Neurath were the first two names that came into mind, but we couldn’t find any more names from those times. [Please do share if you know of another woman who has contributed (somehow) to the field!]. Then we started thinking about the current female presence in the field. And we were even more surprised that the picture hasn’t changed that much: there are a few names here and there (like Margaret Calvert, Karen Schriver, Sylvia Harris, Terry Irwin, Connie Malamed and more recently Deborah Adler) but then there seems to be a gap between them and a much younger generation of female designers in the field which I personally wouldn’t consider them as history (Maybe in a few years!). Like in other parts of life, we need a much stronger presence of women.

Diversity & Ambiguity. The diversity of attendees and the nature of some of the questions (e.g. what is the difference between infographics and data vis?) indicated both the growing cross-disciplinary interest in information design (design and non-design related communities), and the lack of clarity on some key concepts and aspects of the field. The need to better inform what the field entails (principles, applications, outputs) and rigorously determine its goal and boundaries seems now more important than ever to avoid confusion but also to help the field evolve and consolidate.

Thank you again to everyone who joined us during the event this week, and a big thank you to General Assembly for co-sponsoring the event. Stay tuned for information about the next one!

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