“Information Design: Research and Practice” – a Bible for Information Designers?

Apr 19, 2018

Information Design: Research and PracticeInformation Design: Research and Practice, edited by Alison Black, Paul Luna, Ole Lund, and Sue Walker, is a compendium of theories and practical examples of information from leading researchers and practitioners.

This is an excellent resource, comprehensively addressing multiple aspects of information design. Erik Speikerman, one of the contributors to the book, describes the volume as being a ‘Bible’ for information designers.

A Brief History

The book starts by looking at the history of innovation and experimentation in communication, and at early design practices, such as iterative prototyping and revisions.

Stephen Boyd Davis’s opening chapter uses examples from the 18th century, when the first modern timelines replaced typographic representations of historical time. It looks at the simplest representation, the list, and how this was used to name and order events. Davis describes Christoph Weigel’s Discus Chronologicus, a chronological description of historical events on a clock face.

The Discus Chronologicus condensed knowledge onto one sheet, following the commonly held 18th century belief that a large body of knowledge brought together under a single gaze is effortlessly acquired.

Discus Chronologicus

The Discus Chronologicus. Photo: Stephen Boyd Davis

The chapter explores the visual world of time and time-oriented data (data collected over, or related to, time). Visual representations help us to untangle the complexities of this data and to understand the essential information it contains. The chapter describes the TimeViz Browser, which brings together these techniques, categorising more than 100 visualization techniques. Gaining insight into and understanding time-oriented data are challenges of continued relevance for practitioners of information design. A greater understanding of techniques can significantly improve the expressiveness of visual representations.

Origins of Modern Information Design

Have you ever displayed data using a line graph or a bar chart? Did you know that you were using an information design device originally developed in the 18th century? In their chapter, Ian Spence and Howard Wainer describe the invention of statistical graphs by William Playfair. Playfair’s revolutionary pictorial representations of economic data were not appreciated at the time, but are widely used today.

Marie Neurath produced children’s books in the 1940s and 1950s. By mediating between specialists and selected information, she ‘transformed’ this information into a visual statement. Sue Walker’s chapter asserts that Neurath deserves more recognition for her work, because the transformations in the children’s books are precursors to the way that information designers work today.

Overall, I found the section tracing the historical development of information design interesting and enjoyable to read. It offers a fascinating overview, taking us from early visualisations of time data, to the transformation of information into pictures, and addresses the moral and ethical imperative to convey information accurately.

Form and Function

Information Design: Research and Practice highlights the need for design solutions to be tailored, based on usability studies. Dana P. Skopal presents a study of the readability of public information documents, in which positive reader response was associated with the use of plain English. The author concludes by recommending that document producers focus on what is relevant and what a reader needs to take from the text, and designing the document to meet these requirements.

Robert Waller describes how, traditionally, readers encountered text on paper. The text had a clearly defined context, that is, the text was contained on pages of a leaflet, book, or newspaper. Consequently, readers immediately had a visual impression of where things are on a page and where the page is within a document or book.

The way in which documentation is published and consumed has changed. In the digital age, Waller describes how we frequently encounter text as fragments, such as search results, detached from their document context, and often alongside unrelated material. This lack of a defined structure requires new literacy design skills and knowledge.

Robert Linsky outlines a design methodology that imposes a structure by stressing content before design, which can be applied to any delivery method. He explains that, for communication to be clear, it must adhere to the three pillars of LUNA – Locate, UNderstand, and Act. Locating information can be facilitated by an easy-to-navigate document. Using plain language, clear terminology, and colour promotes understanding. Lastly, technical communication must include a description of how to act on the information, for example, to pay a bill, or contact customer support.

The takeaway from this section is that, in place of a traditional layout, information designers need a carefully considered, crafted presentation of a complete message. It is not enough to publish the same text and images in different formats. We need to look at the ways in which readers access the message. Effective communication is the goal of information design, and it requires design, appropriate language, and an understanding of the reader’s needs, all in varying degrees depending on the application.

Tools and Methods

The techniques and methodologies that information designers use include frameworks for organising and classifying information, and developing and evaluating solutions.

Graphic or pictorial symbols are widely used to convey information. Symbols are used in the home, in public areas, in the workplace, and in technology, where they can be used as icons, and as instructions about how to use technology. A big advantage, of course, is that symbols transcend language. Symbols can be used to ensure that warnings are understood by all, regardless of literacy. In industry, the appropriate use of symbols facilitates localisation of content and reduces translation costs, as long as cultural differences in the meaning of symbols are considered.

In her chapter, Alison Black discusses the use of icons, which are symbols to signal or access functionality in computer interfaces. The interpretation of an icon is, Black argues, influenced by the interplay between the icon, the context in the interface, and the previous experience and preconceptions of the user. To understand an icon, a user needs to recognise it, understand what it represents, and understand the meaning in its context.

Moving from individual icons to more complex visual representations, Rune Petterson presents Gestalt principles that information designers can use to understand how we unconsciously connect and link design elements. This can help us to organise content, to make interfaces usable and easy to understand.

An understanding of audience perception can guide information design, but this is not enough. The only way that we know how well information design works is to measure how it affects the understanding of the intended audience. Knowing how and when to elicit useful feedback is an integral part of every information design project, and this section provides descriptions and examples of different methods for evaluating the success of the design.

The Verdict

Information Design: Research and Practice is a comprehensive and interesting exploration of the field of information design. An understanding of the theories behind, and rationale for, doing what we do can improve the practice of any discipline.

In a book with so many contributors, it is not unusual to see a lack of consistency. Some chapters have a clearly defined structure, a description of the problem, followed by a solution and a conclusion. Other chapters seem to end abruptly, as though truncated, which I found a bit frustrating, but several chapters were republications.

I would recommend this book to anyone in the field. Not all sections will appeal to all readers, but, as a reference, this book has value. Like a Bible, it is not a book that you are likely to read from cover to cover, but one that you will keep on your desk and refer to time and time again.

Over to You

As we move from print to reading and accessing information online, how do you think our approach, as information designers, has changed? What do you see as the most important information design strategy to maintain reader interest when readers are facing information overload?


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