Earlier this month, I attended Vision Plus 15 at Birmingham City University, the information design conference organised by IIID and IDA. The core topic of the conference was ‘information + design = performance’. During the two days of the conference, this topic was discussed on 26 talks thematically grouped into eight different angles, including wayfinding, ways to improve performance, information design history, and the importance of standards and understanding for the creation of effective solutions. Although attendees were a mixed of researchers, educators and practitioners, most talks review projects from professional practice and ways in which research could enhance practice.
Many thoughts, ideas and reflections emerged from those two days, some of which will materialise in forthcoming posts. In this post, I summarise key areas covered during the conference:
Shift. The conference opened with Mat Hunter‘s talk (Chief design officer, Design Council UK) presenting projects in which information and service design solutions have had a strong social impact. This opening talk stressed the current shift that information designers are experiencing in terms of the type of challenges they need to address: shifting from the creation of concrete artifacts to the creation of strategies for solving social problems (e.g. patient care, dementia, public service). Current information design challenges are becoming less framed, needing a combination of skills from professionals of various backgrounds, such as requiring ethnographic design methods to better understand communities and people.
Human-centred. Almost all talks pointed out the key role of the audience/user in information design process. However, a difference between getting familiar with that audience/user and thoroughly learning their needs and behaviours emerged. This indicates the need for a multi/inter-disciplinary approach. Information designers are increasingly working together with experimental psychologists and behavioural scientists to gain the necessary understanding to create solutions addressing the intended audience’s needs rather than designers’ personal preferences or assumptions.
Research. In one way or another, words like empathy, research, evidence, methods, literature review, planning, and understanding were mentioned in each talk. Tim Fendley (Legible London) highlighted that ‘planning is as important as design’. These words indicate a more active role of research in professional practice. The need of research was particularly emphasized when solutions were ill-conceived as the result of lack of awareness (of context, environment, audience’s needs) and decisions made based on assumptions rather than evidence.
Methods. Interestingly, many talks described some type of evaluation method to measure the success and performance of information design outputs and outcomes, such as measuring behavioural change, while a few talks highlighted the importance of design methods to understand behaviour and needs. Some of these methods were quantitative involving surveys, questionnaires and interviews, often conducted in experimental conditions rather than naturalistic settings. We presented an overview of methods and tools to support conceptual design and externalise the thought process.
Standards. Geoffrey Peckham (CEO, Clarion Safety Systems) presented design principles, terminology, and visual vocabulary of safety used for the creation of ISO symbols that could also be extrapolated and used to standardize other sign systems. He gave a high level description of the process new symbols go through before they are accepted and approved as ISO symbols, and also discussed key ISO guidelines used to normalise the use of colours, shapes, and types of arrows in workplaces and public areas. This talk provided a window into the process and rigour needed for the development of an effective system of graphical symbols.
Education. Very few talks discussed the current state of information design education. Particularly, Susan Verba (UC Davis Centre for Design in the Public Interest) presented the work of her undergraduate information design students which shown a strong focus on process, conceptual design and research.
As a personal note, even knowing that most attendees were very experienced information designers and that the ‘information design’ term was not foreign to them, I missed having an explicit discussion about what information design is or more talks presenting their working definition or understanding of the field. Also missing for me was a formal discussion on the concept of performance itself (e.g. what is performance in information design? why it is important? how it can be measured?).
In short, the conference was very stimulating and provided a current picture of how information design is adapting and changing to address newer challenges and demands. On the other hand, the absence of explicit discussions of foundational information design aspects may be an indication of the work that still needs to be done in order to consolidate information design as a discipline.