Info design in the centre of contention

As Tufte has written in one of his books: ‘when everything is emphasised, nothing is emphasised’. This happens to me with the massive volume of blog posts, and online discussion platforms. There are so many articles/notes being published in a day, that at the end I rarely read them or comment. However, I am very lucky to have lovely friends who pass along some links about information design. I have noticed that in the last six months the number of articles and posts about info design has increased considerable. Everyone seems to have something to say about this subject. So, in this post I won’t write about how to do or don’t do an information design project, or which colour palettes would be more or less appropriate. Instead, I will write down some general thoughts about the current state of information design and its community.

It seems to be a bit of confusion in the air. Some articles try to define what information design means (1), many posts give tips to create information graphics, and analyse which they considered the ‘bad’ ones (2); while others open discussions about defining information design ‘universal’ terminologies (3).

(1) Defining Info Design
Often, most (print) magazine articles approach info design from an historical point of view and link the discipline with the development of information graphics.
Here arises my first question: why information design tends to be associated with the creation of information graphics most of the time? The boundaries of the info design discipline go far beyond the development of infographics. Richard Wurman’s projects are clear examples of this. I have also explained the many possible projects in which info designers could be involved in one of my articles.

Moving on to my second: what is information design?
In previous posts, I have answered to this question from an academic point of view, but in this post I would like to answer it with an informal and easy-to-understand definition. So, I just did a quick search in wikipedia:

‘Information design is the skill and practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Where the data is complex or unstructured, a visual representation can express its meaning more clearly to the viewer.’

The above definition describes the aim of the discipline. Please note that it does not specify that infographics are the only and ultimate outcome of info design projects. So, again, why does information design tend to be only associated with information graphics?

(2) Visualising information
How to create effective information graphics? I don’t have the answer to this question, because there too many factors involved in the creative process to give aesthetic prescriptions. Just to mention a couple of factors: audience, project requirements, subject, information sources… From the context of graphic journalism Juan Antonio Giner and Alberto Cairo have defined a set of standards to create reliable information graphics, which is entirely focussed on content:

1. An infographic is, by definition, a visual display of facts and data. Therefore, no infographic can be produced in the absence of reliable information.
2. No infographic should include elements that are not based on known facts and available evidence.
3. No infographic should be presented as being factual when it is fictional or based on unverified assumptions.
4. No infographic should be published without crediting its source(s) of information.
5. Information graphics professionals should refuse to produce any visual presentation that includes imaginary components designed to make it more “appealing” or “spectacular”. Editors must refrain from asking for graphics that don’t stick to available evidence.
6. Infographics are neither illustrations nor “art”. Infographics are visual journalism and must be governed by the same ethical standards that apply to other areas of the profession.

My advice to visualise information would be to follow the above points, to consider all factors involved in each project, and, above all, to have always present that the fact that information design is not concerned with beauty but to effective communication and undertanding.
This leads to my third question: what about the other info design projects which are less ‘visual’ than infographics?

(3) Need of clarity
Although info design has been around for more than 60 years now, it is still a young discipline (yes, I am using the controversial word ‘discipline’ on purpose). If we think about design, it has been defined as a discipline at the end of the XIX century, and discussions towards its aims, terminologies, and problem-solving processes are still alive. So, going back to info design, there is a long journey to go. On the one hand there is lack of educational programmes specifically about info design. Information designers have mostly learnt by experience and everyday practice. Consequently, those who are teaching info design might not be info designers. On the other hand, boundaries and aims of the discipline have not been strictly defined yet. The idX group have published an info design education programme proposal in 2007 in which objectives of the discipline and practitioners’ tasks were well defined, but it hasn’t seemed to have been adopted at University levels.

Too many big question marks still need answers before investing energy in smaller aspects. The definition of universal terminologies and the creation of more effective information graphics are relevant subjects of discussion, but first the emphasis should be towards clearly defining the info design boundaries, aims, and areas of application. If not, how can we ensure that what we are arguing would be valid? The development of strong education programmes to properly train next generations of info designers and set the base of the discipline would be a step forward.

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