Collaboration is one of the 21st century skills to master. Traditionally, in information design, collaborative work involved coordination between writers, editors, and information designers to create effective messaging. But, as the scope of information design work broadens, active collaboration between information designers and content experts has become essential to make scientific, technical or other type of complex content accessible to novice audiences. The urgent need for this partnership became evident when teaching information design at Princeton University, where, as a liberal arts college, each student, to an extent, was a content expert in a domain outside of design. This partnership was notoriously successful in my Design for Understanding Quantum Computing (QC) class: students worked closely with QC experts to develop clear interventions to help the general audience understand these concepts.
The scale or complexity of the information design project does not make a difference. Susan McConnell’s talk on using PPT and structuring a presentation is an excellent example that illustrates the need for information designers and content experts working together.
Design knowledge alone is not enough
Content expertise: Dr. McConnell is a neurobiologist who specializes in neural circuits in the mammalian cerebral cortex. This makes her an expert in the topic of the scientific paper she is referring to in the video, and, to an extent, a representative member of the intended audience for this presentation. Interestingly, her audience is scientists, not the general audience. For information design work, subject matter expertise (content knowledge) is key to:
- decide what information is relevant to include
- identify what content could be removed without losing important meaning
- define the core message of the story
- develop a clear narrative structure
Design knowledge: Dr. McConnell also has an understanding of basic design principles (e.g. typography, color contrast, layout) that she explains how to apply to improve the presentation of the information in the slides. Her suggested content and visual changes, like using two colors with high contrast or removing visual clutter, help increase the overall clarity of the slides. After watching this video, one may think that having basic design knowledge would make information designers obsolete, as that’s the only thing you need to create clear communications. However, while all the points brought up in the video are important and can make a big difference, the slides miss design quality and sensibility (e.g. the color combination is too saturated, the use of white space is unbalanced). Only a trained designer would have the expertise to integrate the design and content knowledge so that the end result is more than the mere sum of its parts, increasing its effectiveness and performance.
Information design expertise: Information designers do much more than creating pretty things. They structure, organize and transform content into visual forms that both are easier to understand and look good. To do this effectively, information designers possess a hybrid set of skills blending sensemaking knowledge (how people think, brain activities) with design knowledge. As David Sless explained, information designers have “a wide range of tools at their command and a substantial knowledge based on repeated experience which enables them to judge solutions that are most likely to work.” Of course, audience’s input should also be used to inform the process.
Working towards a “four-eyed sight” approach
Neither the subject matter expert nor the information designer alone can confidently determine, in any instance, which choice of words or visuals might unmistakable work without testing them with the intended audience first. But working together may help to eliminate unworkable solutions and experiment with a greater range of potentially workable solutions. This collaborative process of “image-making” between a content expert and a design expert has been described as “four-eyed sight” (Daston & Galison (2007). The contributions of both types of expertise help achieve a more reliable, credible and compelling end result.
As familiarity with a subject matter increases, the ability to explain that subject with clarity, specially to novice audiences, decreases. Having design knowledge can help, for example understand the work involved in creating clear communication, but it should not replace the work of an information designer. To effectively communicate complex content both types of expertise are needed: Information design + content expertise.
Belknap, G. (2019). The evolution of scientific illustration. Nature, 575(7781), 25-28.
Clark, R.C. & Lyons, C. (2004) Graphics for Learning. Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA
Daston, L. & Galison, P (2007) Objectivity. New York: Zone
Kusukawa, S. (2019). Introduction to Making Visible: The Visual and Graphic Practices of the Early Royal Society.
Sless, D. (1994). What is information design. Designing information for people, 1-16.