Designing with a cause

Loved this little detail on every (brilliant) helper’s shoulder at last week’s Information Design Conference held in Greenwich here in London. It typifies what information designers do best: coming up with a simple and appropriate solution specific to a context.

The positioning of it, the visual, the language, the call to action, they all work, they all contribute.

Another definition came from the excellent keynote speaker Per Mollerup: good information design is clear explanation.

If you prefer examples, information design is the magic making your tax return, medicine instructions, cash-point or town centre easier to use.

Or, as stated on the University of Reading’s MA page (and it seems most information designers anywhere are connected to that department in some capacity): We cultivate observation, evaluation, and analysis to support creative design. We are concerned with the way people interact with visually presented information and how design can best support the mental work that people do.

How is it different to infographic design? I had a stab at explaining this a while back, concluding that “besides having to have a graphic element involved, infographic design tends to be the more subjective cousin of the more objective information design. But like most things in life, there’s a spectrum between the two”.

Having spent two days with a roomful of information designers I’d add that given the user is the centre of any information design project, information design always benefits society. Information graphics only do sometimes. And when they do they are often described as information design.

But semantics aside it’s this overlapping area of information design and infographic design that I find really exciting, graphics with a cause.

That is a phrase stolen from Yuri Engelhardt and Katy Yudin’s presentation exploring the common goals of Otto Neurath and Hans Rosling, those being engaging mass audiences, open data giving everyone access to information and using the power of visuals.

This mighty combination define graphics with a cause. And given both the information design and infographic design communities justifiably claim both Hans and Otto as their own, it also defines the space where information design and infographic design come together.

The work on raising awareness about social mobility in Mexico presented by María de Lourdes Fuentes and María González de Cossío was a good example of this, below. Consulting with users from the outset showed the hallmark of good information design. Weaving in photos of every respondent with the data, allowing a more emotional response to the data, is more infographic design. The combination is a graphic with a cause.

Another impressive piece of work on the 2011 Indian Census was presented by Rupesh Vyas and Sangeeta Balasubramani from India’s National Institute of Design. In a nutshell their critical design interventions made a big difference in the quality of data. To quote them, the application of information design here lead to ‘better clarity in a matter of national importance’, another way of saying graphics with a cause.

(Puts me in mind of a piece of work I’ve blogged about previously, this interactive designed to put the results of the Australian census in context. It ticks the graphics with a cause box nicely.)

Other presentations on the placement of a button, the efficiency delivered by using different types of map, the effectiveness different fonts, the positioning of information posts as well as two superb case studies on the use of language showcased more of the many facets of information design.

While both practitioners and researchers were presenting there’s no getting away from the fact that information design has strong academic leanings. Much in-depth user research goes on, often leading to the publishing of a paper to disseminate the findings. To the best of my knowledge other streams of design don’t go in for this to such an extent. Yes they user test, but then they just make the thing, put it out there and see how it fares. Don’t they? (That’s not say I don’t think infographic design would benefit from some more rigorous research).

We all know about, hear of and increasingly do work that crosses disciplines and blurs job titles. The same is happening in information design, and quite rightly given it is such a vital discipline in a user-centred world. In the same vein it wasn’t surprising to hear the words ‘behavioural’, ‘experience’ and ‘service’ ahead of ‘design’ fairly often. Information design has a key role to play in all these areas. Equally ‘systems’ put in an appearance again, and that makes total sense here since you can’t design a solution in isolation – knowing the bigger picture ensures you solve the right problem, not necessarily the one you’ve been called in for.

However, that said, I also heard a concern voiced in several different ways, best illustrated by the conference chair Rob Waller’s question ‘So how do we get information design involved in health, social and government projects upfront?’. The Indian census project was the exception to this and proved the value design can add if you get in to the right people early enough.

In today’s world that is centred around users this design discipline that has truly had users at its heart for decades has got lots of expertise and knowledge to offer. But it is struggling to get involved.

That sounds like a good theme for another conference to me. And given I’ve linked to most of my previous posts in writing this one I now realise I’ve been collecting potential speakers throughout the existence of this blog (cue another blog post imminently).

Overall the conference was great. In the same way that Malofiej sees absurdly enthusiastic infographic professionals cast off their daily routines and gripes and get together to share their love of their craft with no interruptions from outsiders who don’t necessarily get it, so too IDC2012 provided a similar forum for an equally international delegation of information design professionals. And me and a handful of other absurdly enthusiastic info-y, design-y, communication-y, types.

And it seems that ‘wayfinding’ has now been re-named ‘wayshowing’ but I didn’t manage to find out why.