The Curious Case of Information Design

172-curious

Although information design skills could contribute to a wide range of areas and domains, there are still a few barriers that are hindering those connections.

Sometimes I’m puzzled. In theory, information design (at least, the visualising information aspect of the field) has exponentially grown in the last decade. Articles and examples of visualisations and infographics pop almost every day, and now, if you are work in this field, when you start explaining what you do, everyone nodes and cites the name of a “famous” designer (Edward Tufte tends to come first), and some people even know what Minard did. To some extent, this is remarkable evolution! I remembered 10 years ago, when I talked at the first edition of the MediaLab Prado Conference in Madrid, and argued for the need of information design in disciplines such as chemistry, medicine and so on, the overall reaction was a mixed of scepticism and surprise. At the end of that talked, most questions revealed that people were actually still skeptical of whether presenting information in visual form was credible and could be beneficial to improve understanding of serious topics. Today this way of thinking seems archaic.

However, in practice, the place of information design has not evolved as much since then.

Uncharted territories

There are too many areas and domains in need of understanding and clearer communication that could immensely benefit from information design but aren’t. Just to name a few example areas: immigration processes, university applications, healthcare, tax forms, voting systems, etc. Below I expand the discussion on two scenarios to showcase ways of potential collaborations between information design and other fields:

Food & Sustainability. Recently, I attended a conference on food, sustainability and climate change where one of the panels was focused on the challenge of changing people’s food habits. In different ways, the three panelists talking about the topic mentioned lack of information, poor information and ineffective communication as barriers for behaviour change. They all stressed the need of helping people better understand the risks of unhealthy diets and the ineffectiveness of current ways of visualising information, particularly referring to labelling food, communicating goals, advertising food life cycles and measuring progress. These are direct areas in which information design work could contribute to. However, the involvement of information design as a possible way to help close the gap between people and food was not mentioned or suggested.

Safety. Similarly, a few months ago, I attended a talk on safety and emergency management. One important topic stressed by the speakers was the lack of people preparedness to deal with natural disasters due to lack of awareness or poor understanding of what they should do in those cases. Despite of the huge relevance of the what these organisations deal with at a daily basis, another key piece of information that they shared was that people seem to have no interest in the topic. Probably, this could be the result of misinformation and lack of awareness. Information design can shed light on these areas by helping people better understand what safety involves, spread the message, design and conduct user studies with research tools tailored to their unique needs, improve clarity of communication materials.

Barrier to Understanding

Surprisingly, and despite its benefits, investing in achieving full understanding or supporting clear communication does not seem to be considered a high priority in many organisations, companies and institutions. Four main barriers come to mind that are impeding information design to be seen as ally and “adopted” as an essential party to help develop both daily, tactical activities, and long-term strategic and organsational plans:

  • Ignorance (in the strict sense of the word): Despite the fuzz about infographics, people do not know the real potential of information design.
  • Confusion: There are too many poor examples out there that generate more confusion than provide clarity. The fact that almost everyone claims that they can do the job is damaging those that do have the specialized skills (but maybe have poorer marketing skills!). Too often, clients do not understand the difference between good and bad design, and, most importantly, they don’t understand the consequences of bad design.
  • Disbelief: The unspoken truth is that the value and credibility of information presented in visual form is still questioned and challenged. Like Art, Design has the “curse” of being a visual discipline, and this means that many people associate it with self-expression, decoration or the creation of accessory outputs, but not with the creation of essential outputs with credible meaning.
  • Lack of official qualification: No one really needs a degree to practice information design. And probably this is a direct result of both confusion and ignorance. If people really understood that poor information design could have fatal consequences (e.g. Frascara and Dietmar, 2008), the field would start to be taken more seriously and formal training would start to be a requirement to hire the right person for the job.

On the other hand, this disconnection between theory and practice shouldn’t be such a surprised. While design has established clear boundaries and spread roots, information design (and other design fields, such as social design, communication design, service design, etc.) is still in a much messy situation: there are multiple definitions about what information design is, it is unclear where you can learn it, job responsibilities (under a same job title!) can radically vary from company to company, job vacancies differ from one another (some of them asking for opposite sets of skills!), the community is spread around the world with not much communication among individuals (rather than building on each other’s contributions), and there is a lack of a robust and consolidated educational platform.

Although this list seems discouraging, rather than feeding the current situation, maybe it is time for information design to start over again with a more robust yet clear and direct message of what the field is capable of doing. In addition to this, building on this message, education and practice should follow with a more focused and better defined direction.

Information design also needs a second chance from those people that have the power to make decisions and generate change. People need to have the willingness to invest (time & money) in improving communication and understanding at all levels, and start working with information designer since the beginning of the process, not only at the end.

Frascara J. & Winkler, D. (2008) On Design Research. Design Research Quarterly 3(3):3-14.

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