27 November 2005

What is information design?

There are as many definitions of information design as there are information designers. Some think it's the presentation of complex or potentially confusing information. Others see it as a method to visualize quantitative data. In the end it comes down to how you define information and what you mean by design.

Here are my definitions:

Information: Anything that people need to be aware of in order to make better decisions. For example, the weather report, a new workplace policy, when your taxes are due, etc.

Design: The discipline of developing structures which enhance people's lives. For example, a well-designed house, website or newsletter improves your quality of life more than one that is poorly-designed.

So if you can agree with those definitions, a good definition for information design might be:

Information design: The discipline of developing structures which allow people to find information that's relevant to them, and use it to make decisions which enhance their lives.

This sounds simple when you say it that way, but it has broad implications to a field that most people think of as "the chart people." It's a broad role that crosses organizational silos and goes straight to the heart of what is essential. It includes things like interface design, meeting design, and standards for organization-wide communication.

There is a role in many organizations that is well-suited to owning the information design agenda: and that's the CIO or Chief Information Officer. Developing and sustaining the structure that supports good information flows requires attention to technology, culture, management, and even the simple daily habits and behaviors that rule our organizational lives, such as how we use email and how we run meetings.

Message to the CIO: Step up to the plate!

In a recent web post, Mel Chua made some great points on the subject:

Data continues to burgeon, and we're totally unprepared as a society to handle it. We need a thinking shift. I'm not sure I would call it knowledge management, if by knowledge management we mean "Look, lots of data - store it." We need design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that's geared towards

(1) communication and

(2) organization/productivity.

How do we make use of massive streams of data while still getting things done? We can't shut the doors and say"we can't deal with this much input, so we'll ignore its existence." We can't go "All right, let 'er in!" and then drown in overload. There is too much to do; there is too little time and too few people.

Forget motivational speakers and their exhortations to "take charge of your life" and "get organized." We know all that stuff. We roll our eyes at it. Our work habits are still a mess. It's like the couch potato that knows he should hop off his bum, stop eating TV dinners, and exercise. And yet he doesn't. How can he create a plan so he will? This is an information design problem.

Or you're presenting your new project at a conference ... How do you manage your slides, your speech, your lighting, your talk - how do you get your audience engaged and engrossed in your concept? Numbing their brains with powerpoint bullets is not the right solution, but what is? This is an information design problem.

You want to explain a process ... You want it on a poster you can tack to the wall, but there's so much data to abstract. You don't want a gigantic text dump, but at the same time, a big unlabeled triangle doesn't really tell you much... how do you make content concise yet intuitive, simple yet full of meaning? This is an information design problem.

You're working with a software team. Bug reports and revisions are flying through the air. How do you hold it all together? How do you share information, delegate tasks, ask questions, talk to one another, keep the wheels turning smoothly - what makes a good team good, and what can bad teams do to get better (or is all hope lost for certain group dynamics?) Where do you store what you know? This isn't just a matter of what variable name in what database on what server; this is also things like "Betty's our resident skateboarding expert, but Dan is really good at giving speeches" that nobody ever writes down ... How do you formally describe this so you can make the process better? This is an information design problem.

[Read more from Mel in Information Design: A new discipline?]

I don't agree with Mel that information design is a new discipline, but it's clearly an evolving discipline. "CIO" is a newly defined role, and like "Information Designer," it means different things to different people. There are many definitions, and in some ways they are all correct. But I agree with Mel that most definitions seem too narrow to achieve their stated aim.

The roles came into being to meet a real need. People are overwhelmed with information -- so much so that they increasingly tend to shut down, to filter out key information from the world around them. This is a trend that's dangerous, both for people and the companies where they work.

If we are going to help people cope with the arrival of the information society, where information can be delivered "any time, any place, anywhere," then information design needs to stake a larger claim in the corporate world. Information design must rise to the challenge, to rescue us from the increasingly tangled complexity we are collaboratively creating.

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Anonymous said...

Good post. I once talked to the CEO of a national chain of computer training centers. He admitted to never even holding a meeting to discuss a course on information work. Ask about information systems, you'll likely get a litany of brands and machine architectures, not decisionmaking.

Information design is about understanding, you design for another. This means devising testing for information exchange, not just the designer's output. What changed? Who acted on what information? What happens when a poster is effective?

Other design disciplines conduct user testing. It is even more important for information designers to devise testing methodologies. It is far too easy to say this or that has communicated something, or provided information. Designers put that assumption to the test.

Unknown said...

Great points dc.

Anonymous said...

What comes to mind when we think about how much junk we intace every day, we can't forget to
BRAIN-DRAIN !!! (think of it as a drainer and a constant flow of cans being dumpt - you only want the great and valuable pieces...)