What is Information Design?

Information is comprised of components known as data; these components are things like words, numbers, statistics and facts. Design is the act of conceiving a plan or intention that determines the look and function of something before it is produced. Information design is concerned with explaining complexity through visual means to enable understanding.

Information design is the selection, organisation and presentation of data in a form that is of most value to an intended user. The primary purpose of information design is to help its users to understand and experience the world better. Giving visual form to information can make it more accessible, usable and enjoyable and thereby reducing uncertainty and increasing a positive disposition. Information design records our experience of existence and presents this accumulated knowledge through formats such as: books, guides, exhibitions, maps, signage, interfaces, instruction manuals, television and the Internet. Information design has evolved to meet specific human needs and in doing so has contributed to the shaping of civilisation. We encounter information in different environments such as printed matter; three-dimensional spatial contexts; and the screen interface. Each shapes our experience and perception of information.

In an attempt to understand and make sense of our world we often resort to making information visible through scribbling or jotting down notes. It is unnecessary to have this information designed by a professional; we just need to achieve an immediate understanding of a particular situation. The hastily sketched map that comes to the aid of a fellow traveller, shopping lists, hand-drawn diagrams, recipes passed on by a friend are all examples of vernacular information design. They serve an immediate purpose concerned with function; their aesthetic appearance is often inconsequential to the desired outcome. So what is the case for designing Information?

Imagine for a moment a world without directional signs; no maps to guide us from A to B; entering a building that has no signage; being asked to operate something that has no instructions; trying to read a publication without headings; attempting to find the way through a website that has no means of navigation. You are imagining a world without information or feedback about our environment. It would be a disorientating experience.

Information resides in a hierarchy that begins with data: data is transformed into information; information provides knowledge; and wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge. Data alone is of little value; the way data is presented provides its context and builds meaning. Richard Grefé, Executive Director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, observes that ‘design is the intermediary between information and understanding.’

Information design is a process of making information more useable through a variety of design methodologies and requires an awareness of: instructional design, technical writing, web design, print, publication design, interface design, interactivity, programming, user experience design, information architecture, written and oral communications, human factor concerns, ethnography, cognitive psychology, semantics, syntax, linguistics, semiotics, communication theory, typography, illustration, diagramming, user research and testing. Complex information schemes require multi-, cross- and inter-disciplinary teamwork.

There is a perception that information design is a specialism within graphic design. Information design is an umbrella term that subsumes graphic design. Graphic design is only one of many disciplines that enable information to be envisioned. Graphic designers often unwittingly misrepresent information. Experience design guru, Nathan Shedroff warns that ‘designers often take this opportunity to decorate instead of inform’. David Sless goes further and is concerned over graphic design’s self-obsessed, almost incestuous, appreciation of its own qualities, which ‘valorise individual talent – turning people into heroes.’ Information designers think of others first. To quote Peter Bogaards ‘it’s better to share information than own it’.