Introduction to information design

I’ve just recently been asked why I have an interest in ‘information design’ which caused me to dig out something I wrote six years ago.

In the summmer of 2004 I’d been working as a graphic designer for 2 years when I saw a job ad for a ‘Junior Information Graphic Designer’ at The Guardian. As part of the application I had to write a 500 word editorial about my understanding of ‘Information Design’. This was the first I’d heard of it but I was pretty sure it was for me – I liked design and I liked information.

I still think it was a typo in the ad – I’m sure they’d have rather heard about infographics – and I didn’t get the job, but through researching my ‘editorial’ it kick-started my interest in both information design and infographics.

Re-reading it this week I found I am still pleased with what I wrote, so I’m posting it here.

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If you look around you at any point during your day—inside, outside, at home, at school, at work—you see information everywhere: bills, forms, signs, magazines, newspapers, websites, textbooks, manuals, labels.

Incredibly this vast array of information is only the tip of the iceberg where information resources are concerned. One estimate from IBM states that more information has been produced in the last 30 years than during the last 500, and it’s still growing. That’s not to say we have access to all of this information, or that we understand it, or that we are even interested, but it’s a fact that it’s out there.

In order to get from ‘out there’ and enter into our everyday lives, somewhere along the line every bit of information must have been identified, processed and presented for our consumption: cue information design. To be of use to anyone information has to be harnessed; information design is about giving information form. It isn’t concerned so much with the facts as making them accessible. It is then up to the audience to do what they will with the information. In this way information design is providing a public service.

There are three key parties involved in the process that is information design; the information provider, who wants to communicate specific information to a particular audience; the audience; and the information designer who acts as the interface between the two. The resulting piece of design consists of either words, or a graphic, or a combination of the two, as appropriate for the specific context.

This explanation is necessarily generic when you consider the range of industries, people, events, objects and processes that are involved. It also means that information design is much more than just another branch of design. It draws strongly from other disciplines: psychology, ergonomics, linguistics, business processes. What has emerged is a multi-faceted industry, complete with international institutions, annual conferences and specialist degree courses. However, for all this diversity it is the basic principles of communication, clarity, accessibility and understanding that unifies all its specialisms under the umbrella of ‘information design’.

In contrast to other fields of design, while form and appearance are still important, decoration, entertainment and human interest are not priorities. Information design is often most successful when it is transparent, acting as the vehicle to deliver the information but not getting in the way. There has to be a balance between simplicity and insight. The design should allow different audiences can take away from it different insights. It must also be objective.

Information design came about by necessity. People need to be able to understand technical information, legal documents, the whole phenomenon that is the web. With the volume of information that continues to be generated, the emergence of the digital age and a more visually aware audience than ever, information design will continue to evolve. Information designers will never be out of a job—helping everyone to make sense of the products, services and businesses that we rely on to live our lives.