What is Information Design?

Coined by Richard Saul Wurman in 1976, Information Design is a field and approach to designing clear, understandable communications by giving care to structure, context, and presentation of data and information in an effort to make information as effective as possible.  According to the Information Design Institute:

Information Design is the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments in which it is presented, with the intention to satisfy the information needs of the intended recipients.

International Institute of Information Design

Information design is associated with the technology age but has historical roots. Early instances of modern information design include these effective examples:

Minard on Napoleon in Russia
Minard on Napoleon in Russia

Contemporary Information Designers

Contemporary information designers — like David McCandless, Edward R. Tufte, and Nathan Yau — seek to edify more than persuade, and exchange more than to foist upon. With ever more powerful communication technologies, we have learned that the issuer of designed information is as likely as the intended recipient to be changed by it, for better or worse.

“Left vs. Right”: A collaboration between David McCandless and information artist Stefanie Posavec, taken from the book The Visual Miscellaneum (out Nov 10th).

Information designers consider the selection, structuring and presentation of the information provider’s message in relation to the purposes, skills, experience, preferences and circumstances of the intended users. To do this they need specialist knowledge and skills in graphic communication and typography, the psychology of reading and learning, human-computer interaction, usability research and clear writing, plus an understanding of the potential and limitations of different media.

Techniques and Principles

To utilize information design when solving your own information and communication challenges, try integrating these simple techniques and principles into your process:

  • Remember that information only has value when it is successfully communicated. If it cannot be accessed or understood it does not have value.
  • Identify and stay true to the goals that your information is intended to support. Setting and achieving the correct goals is the very purpose of the eventual information and the reason why information needs strong design. Take the time to make sure your goals are sound, and remain focused on them throughout the process.
  • Be mindful of how you create and disseminate information during development. If the information and communication with the client or internal team is not well designed, you are more likely to end up with an information deliverable that does not promote the most understanding. The design of good information is not limited to the final product.
  • Understand how the information you are creating will be experienced or communicated by the participants. Who is the intended audience? Which of their senses will/should/could be engaged? How will the context of that experience, or the situational variables involved, influence the information itself? Knowledge of the interaction and exploration of different experiential factors will make the information as meaningful to the eventual participants as possible.
  • Understand the information domain. Valid and thorough context is critical to providing strong information solutions. There is a lot of focus and scholarship on usability but precious little attention given to the rest of the relevant domain in the design process. Participants are influenced by history, by the market and by cultural factors. Some information disciplines actively account for these, but many do not. Information design insists that they must.
  • Seek out the information that you need. No one synthesizes everything that goes into well-designed information. The Internet provides us immediate access to information on every topic germane to information design. Be aggressive in learning more, asking questions and seeking out answers. While the Internet is the easiest medium for answers, you should also read books and—best of all—seek out and cultivate relationships with others who have the knowledge and background that you need

Recommended Reading

McCandeless, D., (2009), The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World’s Most Consequential Trivia, Harper Design; Csm edition (November 10, 2009)

Yau, N., Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics, Wiley; 1st edition (July 20, 2011)

Tufte, E., (1990), Envisioning Information, Graphics Pr (May 1, 1990)

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