No single history

There are many histories of information design that could be constructed. Indeed, at this point in the development of our profession, there are probably almost as many histories of our practice as there are practitioners of information design. This is because we have each come to the field from different backgrounds. Some have come from a background in writing, others from ergonomics, human factors or cognitive science, others have come from graphic design or engineering. And the list could go on. Each of these origins gives us a different history, a different way of telling the story of our origins.

I have found it useful to construct a history of information design as a story of transitions.

What do I mean by transitions?

In using the term ‘transition’ I am thinking of a transition in state rather than a movement from one situation to another. I am trying to give a sense of something quite radical. Just as the transition in state from, say, ice to water involves something other than movement from place to place, so I want to suggest that the transitions I have gone through in thinking about information design have been profound. While many of the ingredients persist across transitions, such as a concern for relationship between visual elements and a concern for the relationship between designs and users, the way in which I have tried to integrate these and newer concerns—the philosophical and theoretical assumptions that underlie practice—has undergone a profound intellectual change. If I were working within an area of science, I would suggest that with each transition I and my colleagues have gone through a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense.

Thus for me, information design is not a cumulative pluralist tradition in which, over the years, I have added a diversity of insights from multiple disciplines. On the contrary, at each transition I have reconstructed the notion of information design, fundamentally reshaping what I mean and understand by its practice; in other words, I have changed the philosophical assumptions underlying my understanding of practice.

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