Often, information designers are more concerned with learning techniques/tools and visual languages for visualising information and creating trendy information graphics (or infographics) than spending time understanding and organising the given information sources, and defining a solid conceptual structure. However, for the creation of understandable and legible information graphics the key phase in the design process is the initial one, known as conceptual design. Decisions made during this phase define the content structure of information graphics, and begin to give shape to possible visual structures. It is worth mentioning that decisions about typography, colour and shape belong to a later phase of the design process, known as prototype/executing design.
In information design (print) projects, conceptual design actions are aimed to analyse and organise information sources, define content structure and hierarchies, based on a set of external variables described in the design brief. Below a deeper explanation of the key terms often used to referring to components and actions, which take place during the initial stages of the creation of infographics, followed by a brief description of how conceptual design actions influence prototype design decisions.
Information graphics are created from the organisation and synthesis of different pieces of content from various sources—referred as information sources. The organisation and synthesis of information sources involves decisions to define the information architecture model (Costa and Moles, 1992) of information graphics, which ‘figures out the overall structure’, including ‘the hierarchy of information and the master plan for the piece’ (Baer, 2008:70). Baer adds that map-type diagrams are often outputs, which show the characteristics of the information architecture model previously defined. In other words, information graphics do not display all the content included in information sources, they present a synthesis of it, often around 25 percent of the initial content (Baer, 2008), organised according to an information architecture model, drawn as map-type diagrams.
Technically, information is perceived and understood in organised information fragments, referred as chunks (Moles, 1966, Lawson and Dorst, 2009); each of them contains specific parameters and characteristics. We are able to ‘chunk’ or cluster a great deal of information together under the heading of a category (Lawson and Dorst, 2009: 162)—often referred as type of information. The act of ‘chunking’ groups of information fragments into single types of information is one of the key conceptual design actions.
The definition of characteristics of each type of information, such as their level of importance—often referred as hierarchies—and the way they are organised—often referred as organisation rationale—, is another key action of this phase.
Many external variables, such as the intended audience, purpose and objectives of an information graphic, play a key role in the definition of the above components of the information architecture. How information fragments will be organised?, according to what set of characteristics?, which type of information is more important? The answers to these questions should be based on the requirements and intended audiences of a particular project, specified at the very beginning in a design brief.
Once the information architecture model is defined, it ‘evolves’ into more detailed sketches or maps of a possible final piece, which can be seen as initial draft proposals. Nevertheless, these documents—often referred as wireframes (Baer, 2008)—are still not concerned with design details. Wireframes are a ‘detailed guideline for layout and functionality within the information design piece’, providing details for each (content) component, but they do not specify choices about shape or colour. ‘They map out which elements in design are most and least important to determine the focal points to the design of the final information graphic’ (2008:70). In short, wireframes are sketches, drawings or draft diagrams which show the content of the given information sources organised and catalogued in layout form.
In a later phase, actions are aimed to visualise the information already organised and synthesised, based on the information architecture model—types of information, organisation rationale, hierarchies, and overall structure—and detailed mapped out in wireframes.
When types of information are visualised, they are perceived as supersigns (Costa and Moles, 1992), as they are composed for signs—often referred to as visual components. In information graphics supersigns are purposefully organised composing their visual structures, which should be based on variables previously defined in the information architecture model. Thus information in information graphics is perceived as in different levels composed of supersigns—often referred as levels of information. Going further, Costa and Moles (1992) point out that (complex) content should be decompose at least in three different levels of information: infrasigns, signs, supersigns, to visualise the different variables included in that complex piece of information.
Information graphics with a well-defined information architecture model facilitate actions of prototype design stages (Costa and Moles, 1992), resulting in final pieces which are more likely to be highly understood for their intended users (Baya and Leifer, 1996 cited in Cross et al.).
– Baer, K., 2008. Information design workbook: graphic approaches, solutions, and inspiration + 30 case studies. Beverly (Mass): Rockport.
– Baya, V. and Leifer, L.J. (1996) Understanding Information Management in Conceptual Design. In Analysing Design Activity. Eds. Cross, Christiaans and Dorst, pp151-168)
– Costa, J. & Moles, A., 1992. Imagen didáctica. 2nd ed. Barcelona: Ed. CEAC.
– Dorst, K. And Lawson, B. (2009) Design expertise. Oxford: Architectural Press
– Moles, A (1966) Information theory and esthetic perception. Urbana ; London : University of Illinois Press (Translation, by J. E. Cohen)