We live in a world increasingly saturated with information, and thanks in large part to the worldwide web, data now flows faster than the speed of light. Whether this means downloading massive amounts of text to a computer or mobile device, sharing links and ideas via social networks, or simply accessing news media resources, the reality is that there is an abundance of data in today’s world. Information designer Richard Saul Wurman puts it bluntly: “A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.”
With so much data spinning around us, how can we make sense of it all, and for goodness sake, how can we choose where to focus our attention?
A growing field known as information design may have at least part of the answer. As defined by the Information Design Exchange, information design is “the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments in which it is presented, with the intention of satisfying the information needs of the intended recipients.” Information designers exist at the intersection of theory and practice. They seek ways to make information useful by organizing, synthesizing, and presenting it in a cohesive manner that will enable rapid analysis and application. Expressions of this notion of “planning and shaping…contents” and presenting them coherently abound, from the musings of Edward Tufte (see, for example, Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information”), to Hans Rosling’s brilliant Gapminder software.
Infographics, geocoded maps, and data-rich graphs are just a few of the many resources that designers and statisticians are using today to present information and convey meaning to their audiences. These visualizations are popping up in a variety of places, such as popular Generation Y publication Good Magazine, the “DataBlog” of UK-based Guardian, and Fast Company’s popular “Infographic of the Day” resource.
With the loads of data present in today’s society, there is vast market potential for visually coherent, data-driven information tools, particularly those with ready access to Web outputs. Meanwhile, those with the design and statistical chops to manipulate these tools stand poised to have a tremendous impact on the way we view and interpret the world. To such an effect, in a 1994 essay for Wired Magazine, Paul Saffo poignantly predicts the growing importance of point of view in an information-saturated culture:
The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintessentially- human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. (emphasis added)
As Saffo suggests, the way in which information is presented matters greatly. It matters for the kinds of decisions that are made based upon that information and it matters for the results of those decisions. Information design, at its best, helps people make sense of the world that surrounds them, highlighting patterns, underscoring trends, and offering insights into why things are they way that they are and how to improve.
Simultaneously, information designers hold within their reach an incredible responsibility– a responsibility to not only organize and make sense of massive amounts of information, but also to present information that conveys meaning where meaning exists, and avoids attributing meaning to non-meaningful relationships. In a January 2010 piece Stephen Few, of Perceptual Edge, cautions those developing “information visualizations” to ensure that they use “renderings” that accurately and cohesively convey information. Similarly, data visualization guru David McCandless recently gave a TED talk illustrating the power and persuasion of information made beautiful. McCandless’s talk is visually stunning and well-presented. However, the comments section of McCandless’s presentation underscores some of the challenges that accompany visualization: while some viewers wildly supported McCandless’s work, others criticized him for misrepresenting the facts in a few key areas.
As with design in nearly every other area, information design exists with the capacity to enlarge and enhance the world, and the simultaneous potential to harm it if used improperly. As designers, artists, and interpreters, we should remain ever- aware of this reality, and applaud those working to present data in meaningful, thoughtful ways.
To learn more about information design and its applications, visit any of the resources mentioned above, or check out the following:
- Helvetica: a documentary film about the influential role of this popular typeface and the importance of graphic design in everyday life
- The writings of Otto Neurath
- Vizthink.com, a “global community for visual thinkers and communicators”
 “Information Design: Core Competencies; What information designers know and can do.” Information Design Exchange, 31 Aug. 2007, 8. Accessed via http://www.iiid.net/PDFs/idxPublication.pdf
 Saffo, P. “It’s the Context, Stupid.” Wired Magazine, 1994. Accessed via Paul Saffo’s Website: http://www.saffo.com/essays/contextstupid.php
 Linked on Few’s website is a fun interactive quiz, challenging visitors to test their visual IQ when it comes to graph design http://www.perceptualedge.com/files/GraphDesignIQ.html