Applied information design: The encyclopaedia

My admiration for complex information design objects started long time ago, when I found the Quillet encyclopaedia (Argentinean editorial Arístides Quillet) that my mom has at home. This collection of 4 volumes was first published in Argentina around 1940s. Each volume covers a specific list of contents and almost everything can be found there. Visual content is a combination of black and white schematic drawings and illustrations, but the volumes have a few full colour pages as well.

Volumes and page from the Quillet encyclopaedia (published by Arístides Quillet, 1940s)

Double-page (published by Arístides Quillet, 1940s)

When I did my masters thesis on encyclopaedia design strategy, I realised how fundamental were information management skills in the design process of complex communication objects. Information management skills help capture and organise information in such manner that it can be retrieved and reused at a later stage of the problem-solving process (Baya and Leifer, 1996 cited in Cross et al., 1996). Particularly, in encyclopaedia design, tonnes of data from different sources are translated into a same style and put together as a single (or set of) object(s). Planning and organising are some of the skills used to make sense of all that data, which make evident the relevance of conceptual design.

Going back in time, an exquisite example illustrates the importance of those skills for information design: The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, published as independent volumes from 1751 to 1772. This Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts, as it is indicated in the title, was one of the first of this editorial typology. This book included contributions from many authors and from a varied range of subjects, and drawings and schematic illustrations from the areas of history, poetry, philosophy and natural sciences, among others.

Left: The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot // Right: Page of contents

A pretty detailed description of Diderot’s work can be found here, which shows its complexity and richness:

 ‘The work comprised 28 volumes, with 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. The first seventeen volumes were published between 1751 and 1765; eleven volumes of plates were finished by 1772.’

Diderot’s information management skills can be appreciated in the page of contents (image above), which gives an overview of the structure and subjects included in the encyclopaedia. Interestingly, for Diderot, ‘Understanding’ seems to be composed for three main subjects areas: themes/fields related to ‘Memory’, to ‘Reason or reasoning’, and to ‘Imagination’.

This object was precursor in more than one way. On the one hand, it reunited large amount of data from different sources and translated it into a combination of textual and visual content. And, at the same time it could be seen as the consequence of or the response to a new way of thinking and understanding reality. The beginning of the XVIII century was characterised by a change of mentality, in which tradition and faith as the answer to many questions and problems was replaced for analytical reasoning. Gradually, science and intellect substituted superstition.

Diderot’s encyclopaedia could be seen as an unquestionable contribution to the establishment of science as a source of knowledge, make knowledge accessible to a wider audience and to disseminate it to future generations.

Baya, V. & Leifer, L.J., 1996. Understanding information management in conceptual design. In Cross, N., Christiaans, H. & Dorst, K. (eds.) Analysing design activity. England: John Wiley & Sons,pp.151-168.

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