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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3 thoughts on “What is information design?”
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 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?
 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 ;-)
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.
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