What is information design?

What is inform­a­tion design? I often get asked this ques­tion, and just as frequently struggle to answer. It’s known loosely by other names, graphic commu­nic­a­tion, for example, and commu­nic­a­tion design. But it also over­laps with another term you might have heard, service design. Any closer? No? Oh.

To others it’s a collec­tion of design discip­lines, with a little psycho­logy mixed in. Wayshowing, instruc­tional graph­ics, user exper­i­ence design for web or print, products, pack­aging, typography.

My personal defin­i­tion is very broad, possibly broader than many inform­a­tion design profes­sion­als would feel comfort­able with. It is my firm believe that pretty much anything, yes anything, can be inform­a­tion designed. I’m even clos­ing in on a defin­i­tion that almost says that nearly everything should be inform­a­tion designed. But we’re still no closer to saying what inform­a­tion design is.

Imagine if you will, a basic chair. It’s there. You can sit on it. It is perfectly func­tional and does­n’t seem like its going to break anytime soon. It conveys chair-ness admir­ably. An engin­eer (and this is a gross over simpli­fic­a­tion, here) might look at the chair and pronounce it perfectly satis­fact­ory. An artist might look at it and say that it needs to fly, or be floures­cent pink. I don’t know what artists do so I’m spec­u­lat­ing rampantly here.

An inform­a­tion designer, on the other hand, could look at the chair and think: ‘Great! A seat’ but as they sat on it they’d start to wonder if the seat would be more comfort­able at an angle. Or with a cush­ion. Or what if three squab­bling chil­dren all wanted to sit on the chair — can I help it survive that intact? Is the space between it and the next chair wide enough for a person of consid­er­able size to navigate?

I believe inform­a­tion design­ers are ergo­nom­ists. If that’s even a word. We make it our jobs to make some­thing that’s not just func­tional, but better than func­tional. Helpful. Transforming.

We can start the design process with some­thing that needs chan­ging, or some­thing that needs creat­ing out of nothing.

That kind of approach can be taken anywhere, and applied to nearly anything. It’s not art, it can’t and should­n’t tran­scend our under­stand­ing because, with a few notable excep­tions (cat flaps, anyone?) it’s purpose is facil­it­at­ing human under­stand­ing. Making life easier no matter where you are or how poor your circumstances.

My own twist on inform­a­tion design is that it should, wherever possible, make the avail­able choices as clear and under­stand­able as possible, so you can make the right one for you.

Too many people in this world struggle on without time, money, chances to think clearly free from some­times mortal stress, educa­tion oppor­tun­it­ies, health­care options, food, water and a million other depriva­tions both mental and phys­ical. All of these stresses compete with our feel­ings of autonomy and our percep­tion of the choices we have.

Information design isn’t the answer to those situ­ations, but it’s one of the tools that can help. And that’s why I am an inform­a­tion designer, and what I think inform­a­tion design really is.

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Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.

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3 thoughts on “What is information design?

  1. I think your chair example demon­strates what design is, and what a designer might think, but I don’t think it’s specific to inform­a­tion design. IMHO a good designer[1] occu­pies a metal half-way house between engin­eer­ing and art, and tends to ask the “what if” ques­tions, such as those that you suggest, to make things better.

    Would it be too simplistic to say that inform­a­tion design is doing that specific­ally with information?

    [1] As opposed to a preten­tious Designer, who will obsess over the import­ance of Design (always the capital D) over prac­tic­al­ity and call you “daaaarling” a lot. But that’s a differ­ent conversation ;-) 

    1. That’s because graphic design­ers are more often artists. Communication design­ers can be artists, engin­eers, anyone. 

      By using the chair meta­phor I was attempt­ing to convey that inform­a­tion is contained in a lot of things — not just books, leaf­lets and posters. Everywhere inform­a­tion is required for people to thrive, it can and should be designed. 

  2. this is wonder­fully writ­ten and with great under­stand­ing and clar­ity. and it inspires a more expans­ive and compas­sion­ate view which is always good.

    is there more that you have writ­ten on Information Design? if so, please send links


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