Function first, form second

It took me a bit longer than I have initially planned but I would like to share three key points that emerged from Malofiej 20. In my last post I delineated the relationship between information design and information graphics. Now I will go further into that, presenting three aspects from information graphics that could be extrapolated to information design, in that they are summarising information design rationale. During his talk at M20, Alberto Cairo highlighted the following aspects that should be considered when designing information graphics:

Functionality: The Bauhaus school previously introduced the concept of functionalism, where to achieve an effective design the essence was explored first. The term Functionalism emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the Art Nouveau period. It is based on the use of material resources and techniques with functional purposes, and thus far away from beauty. Functionalist theories are strictly based on the phrase ‘form follows function’, which denotes that ‘function was to define the logic of design and, more specifically, of form’ (Erlhoff and Marshall, 2008:177). For information design projects, it is strictly necessary to separate the content (information to be transmitted and translated) from the container (visual properties of the representation). Sutnar is referred as the ‘progenitor’ of information design, precisely for stating the difference between functional and aesthetic design back in the early 1940s.

Multidimensionality: Information graphics are multidimensional schematic representations displaying large amounts of information with great clarity (when they are well-conceived). These schematic representations contain multiple layers of information that create multiple viewing depths and multiple viewing angles to represent the complexity of reality. Both Tufte and Cairo accentuate that they need to be structured on at least three viewing levels:

  • The story: the entry to the graphic
  • The labels: the key areas of the information
  • Levels of information: the hierarchies of and connections between the key areas

From the information design perspective the concept of multidimensionality is also applicable. Baer points out that many factors that determine the effective functionality of an information design solution are unrelated to the formal aspects of the execution of that solution, but have everything to do with the broader picture in which it is conceived. Three of those factors could be:

  • The story: the problem to be solved. Information designers are translators that need to understand the story to be able to create the solution. Therefore, understand the roots of the problem is the first step towards finding/defining an effective solution.
  • The labels: the key areas of the problem and factors involved. The breaking down of the problem into sub-areas which could be tackled independently facilitates thorough understanding. In addition, learn about and research the needs and requirements of each factor which could affect or be an influence in the problem-solving process are key tasks.
  • Levels of information: the hierarchies of and connections between the key areas and parties. Information design problems deal with great complexity in which various parties are involved, i.e., organisations, clients, users, external contributors/freelancers, designers… Learn about the inner working of those parties, its politics and goals gives the information designers a solid framework to plan the appropriate problem-solving strategy.

Beauty: This is the third aspect described by Cairo. It is important to clarify that here Cairo referred to the credibility and transparency of content, and not to the visual quality of information graphics.

To adapt this term to the information design context, I tweaked this concept and rephrased it as Aesthetics.Yes, information designers should care about aesthetics. We do have the skills and knowledge to visually communicate information. Understanding information design principles and tools is essential to ensuring an effective output. But the problem is that currently designers’ attention seems to be focused on only this aspect of the process, when aesthetics should be the result or the consequence of the other two aspects, as it should come last in the decision-making chain of actions.

Much energy is being placed in the development of THE new way of visualising information, and sometimes not that much in the thinking, researching and understanding aspects of information design problems. Nigel Holmes referred to this trend nicely in his talk at M20 when he stated that ‘everything has been already done before. The challenge for designers it is not about style or technology, but to create what really communicates.’

‘The answer is in the books; in the history… we just need to look back‘, emphasised Holmes.


– Erlhoff, M. & Marshall, T., 2008. Design dictionary: perspectives on design terminology. Basel: Birkhäuser.


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