Information design determines the quality and clarity of the message. It can unlock the data or obscure it. It also shows how the sender feels about the recipient.

Information Design

Information Technology (IT) is just that: technology for information. Machines can be used to store and organize vast amount of data, and then select and format that data into some sort of message.

How best to craft a message depends on a myriad of factors. It is an interdisciplinary ancient art going way beyond computer science. It draws on the psychology of human perception, human sentiment and cultural context. It may also involve material science, a good deal of intuition as well as a sense of timing. Magicians need it, as do politicians, teachers, artists, business people of all types, really just about anybody who wants to inform, impress, motivate, teach, or entertain somebody.

Computers now gather and format most of the information being communicated in print or across the net. They make it easy to crank out charts and graphics but give little guidance in how to chose the right information design. As a result, there are plenty of examples of bad information design throughout journalism, science, business, and politics including some especially sad ones where the point gets lost even though the author or speaker has something important to say to a receptive audience. How sad!

For instance, almost all writings using pie charts use them instead of a more suitable design, with the possible exception being a) those who try to obscure information from their readers, b) certain types of scatter plots which nest single-level break down information into objects being scattered in a context where the slice ordering has meaning and pie orientation is guaranteed not to interfere with the directional semantics implied by the scatter mapping itself (i.e.: rarely), and, and c) those wanting to show how much of a pie has been eaten.

Pie charts are at the low end of the scale in terms of information density, using a decent amount of visual space to communicate a handful of numbers. On the other end of the scale (in two dimensional space) are maps using effective color coding, such as the standard USGS maps. These can communicate many thousands of numbers in the visual real estate occupied by the smallest of pie charts. Pie charts also imply meaning where there is none: why are entries ordered and color coded the way hey are? Why do the pie pieces start at noon, or at 3 o'clock, or wherever they start?

There are many different ways of visualizing data. Use the wrong vehicle, and you will literally waste your audience's brain power. You may be surprised by how quickly they catch on and find something more productive to do. Even the audience that stays with you, will be taking up less quality information to the degree that your information design gets in the way.

The real reason why information design matters so much, of course, is in the information being communicated. The consequences of a failure to communicate can be humorous or annoying, but they can also be expensive and even tragic, depending on what is at stake.

For instance, if somebody whose job affects public safety has to gleam vital information from some sort of status display, one can only imagine the needless ongoing anxiety, frustration, and danger that will result from a poorly designed system. Yes, graphical user interface design is a form of information design, as do literally all forms of interaction, and just about any kind of cognitive response, visual or not.

So, if you care about the ideas or information you are trying to communicate, and you value the mind share your audience is granting you, then please take the time to follow these basic design principles:

  • use the appropriate visual design and layout for you data, i.e.: chose the right kind of charts or maps
  • use respectful and reasonable assumptions about what is obvious to your audience and what is not
  • use a consistent language throughout
  • use only as much contrast (e.g.: brightness and color) as necessary
  • follow convention unless these is a good reason to invent something better
  • use minimal supporting visual elements (like legends, axis, or titles) and only where necessary

If you feel this is not something you are terribly good at, then get some help in making these choices. If you think you sort of have a handle on your information design, then get some feedback from someone who's opinion you trust.

Your audience will be grateful.