In 1998 I was invited to give a presentation at a conference organised by the Information Design Association in the UK. The paper was never published but I thought it might strike a chord with today’s readers of this blog, so here it is.
Yes, why do information design?
Apart from the obvious reasons – you’re brilliant at it, you like the working conditions, you make lots of money, it will make you famous – what is the raison d’étre of information design? What are the passions that motivate us?
I ask this question because I think if we can answer this question in a way that satisfies many of us, we also have an underlying rationale for information design education.
Unfortunately, in our topsy-turvy world, educators with a vision for tomorrow are required to develop courses for yesterday. The miserable demands of market economics require educators to train students to ‘satisfy market needs’ that already exist. Consequently, educators are asked to produce people for yesterday’s professional practices—practices that many information designers find inadequate. But, just suppose we ignored these mindless marketing imperatives—at least for the duration of this conference—what future would we create with our students?
I have some thoughts on how this question might be explored. I would like to develop these thoughts with you all.
So. Why do we do information design?
An answer to the question
If we look at some of the seminal design projects and texts that have inspired us and made us want to belong to this community of practice, we can see a central concern for the relationship between people and information. For example, Harry Beck, the designer of the London Underground map described his conception of the map thus:
I tried to imagine that I was using a convex lens or mirror, so as to present the central area on a large scale. This, I thought, would give a needed clarity to interchange information. (Garland 1994, page 17)
Thus, at the moment of conception, Beck’s attention is focused on the ‘needed clarity’—the relationship between people and information.
Similarly, Robert Miller ( Miller 1984) talking about transaction forms observed that:
The appearance of the form should not only be inviting, but should enhance the importance of what information the user is to supply. That is its reason for existence. Many forms seem to have contempt for the user’s data … The quality of the paper, typography, printing can appear to belittle the importance of the users’ effort in filling it out, and of the transaction in which the form’s content is an essential part. The quality of these factors is more than a subtle indicator, to the user, of the originator’s attitude towards them and to the importance of the transaction. (Miller 1984, p 536)
I think we do information design because we care deeply and passionately about the relationship between people and information. We want to make that relationship as useful, productive, and as satisfying as we can for people.
This interest in the relationship between people and information is motivated by two things: on the one hand it is motivated by a desire for greater efficiency and effectiveness in business and government; on the other hand, it is motivated by a sense of public service, a desire to make our society a fairer, more equitable place, where people are not disadvantaged by poorly designed information, and conversely are able to do what they want to do because the information available to them is accessible and usable. Underlying this later motivation is a profound respect for others.
We are living through an unusual historical period in the developed world, in which there is a synergy—a coincidence—between the two motivations of efficiency and equity. Because of the contemporary vogue for ‘customer focused’ service in government and business, making or saving money coincides with being nice to people; capitalism has discovered kindness, mammon has acquired manners.
Will it last? Are we perhaps living in a golden age of information design? The only thing we can be certain of is that nothing ever lasts, and so we should seize the moment to ensure that good information design becomes the norm so that if the synergy does not last, we will have created a sufficiently impressive body of practice to ensure the continuity of our interest beyond this moment.
To do so, we need to ensure that the accumulated wisdom and know-how that we have acquired from previous generations and built on in our own generation, is passed on to the next through our education programs.
Our special challenge
The twin motivations of achieving efficiency and equity in the relationship between people and information provides a distinctive goal for information design. It also provides us with a special challenge. Since our goal is achieved in a relationship rather than in a product, we have to look beyond products for evidence of the performance of our designs.
The challenge is to grasp the ungraspable, to hold in stasis a transient event, to manage not an object but a dynamic process, to manage a dance by providing the choreography but not the music or the dancer. We can control what we put into the relationship, but we do not control the relationship itself.
How then have we dealt with this challenge? In hindsight, it is possible to see this century as a slow, uneven, and yet methodical working towards meeting that challenge.
We are now at a point where we can define the practice of information design much more clearly. We understand how to participate in the relationships that people have with information and learn from that participation.
Others’ claims to our territory
I want to distinguish at the outset between ways in which we have genuinely advanced our craft, and claims arising in other disciplines that certain fields of knowledge are necessary to our craft.
Many 20th century intellectual projects have adopted an imperial colonising strategy towards traditional fields of practice like design. This is true of psychology, which has sought to take over many traditional practices by claiming a superior scientific knowledge.
For example, David Jonassen (Jonassen 1982) in his Preface to The Technology of Text, declared:
…the technology of text is the application of a scientific approach to text design. It exists as a counterpoint to the artistic and unsystematic approach to text design and layout that has prevailed since petroglyphs were first inscribed on walls. (Jonassen 1984, page x) (italics in the original)
Similarly, semiotics and its handmaidens communication and cultural studies have laid claim to an ‘understanding’ of design as a ‘cultural’ product.
The predatory habits of these intellectual projects are at times difficult to resist, particularly in the highly charged predatory and autophagus environments of higher education, where success is measured in terms of students on seats and publications in citations, rather than in terms of successful practice of a craft.
To those of you faced with such predation, may I suggest that the predator has to demonstrate the usefulness of their superior knowledge or unique insights into our craft, before we let them in the door or curriculum, not afterwards.
Always bear in mind that there is a big difference between knowing about something, and knowing how to do it; professional horse racing gamblers do not necessarily know how to ride horses.
I now turn to some of the main attempts which have taught us some important lessons about what does and does not work.
What have we learnt?
This century has been characterised by many investigations into alternative information design practice, in the hope that these alternative practices would lead to designs which people would find useful, productive, and satisfying.
I would like to label and briefly describe some of these attempts and suggest that despite some obvious failures, these attempts have made important contributions to our developing practices, which we can now use to outline a suitable information design syllabus for the future.
Information design as a heroic practice
Anyone who has been associated with art and design education in this century will readily recognise the idea of the artist or designer as a kind of hero. Much of the education of designers within the romantic and modernist tradition has been premised on the idea that designers are special types of people with a sensitivity and insight that transcends everyday experience and provides the rest of humanity with distinctive and clear styles and visions, unique to that individual designer.
As this has been the dominant tradition of design in our culture, it is not surprising that it has found its way into information design. A glance through any of the celebratory texts from the Graphis stable will give you a glimpse of information design champions whose heroic works are displayed for the rest of us to marvel at and admire.
Such heroic figures may exist. But as Paul Stiff (1993) has astutely observed:
… a profession which waits for the appearance of another lone genius has still got a lot to learn about method (Stiff 1993, 44)
Despite the great efforts made in design education in this century, we have yet to develop the art of curriculum design to the point where we can reliably train people to be heroic geniuses. In the meantime, the need for good information design remains. So, while we wait for the genetic accident or the breakthrough in pedagogy, the rest of us need to have some ways of doing information design to a modestly acceptable standard.
But even when the lone genius is in our midst, how sure can we be that the designs they create will perform adequately, let alone with excellence, to enable people to use information in useful, productive and satisfying ways. Without corroborating evidence, we can only assume that because we are in the presence of a genius, it must be so. But this is not an entirely satisfying answer. Indeed, some of us find it totally unsatisfying and entirely circular. However, it does raise the important question: what would be appropriate evidence of the very best of practice to which many of us could aspire, and which the rare genius in our midst would achieve?
Information design as a formal practice
Moving out from under the shadows of genius, humbler spirits have turned to the past in search of answers. One of the oldest ways of doing information design is to learn and then apply a set of formal craft rules. The central idea here is that there are ways of doing things—a set of best practice rules—that have been established over many centuries of practicing the craft of information design. In particular, rules of good graphic design and language use provide the backbone of formal practice in information design. Indeed, one of the major ‘innovations’ within contemporary information design practice has been to bring people specialising in these two crafts—graphic designers and writers—together within the one design process.
In most of our educational systems these crafts are still taught separately. But there are some hopeful signs of integration, such as the courses in Coventry, the spirited advocacy of such approaches by Karen Schriver at this conference last year, and the work of many others. Such unification of formal crafts has seemed to some to be a necessary and sufficient basis for a mature information design practice, arguing this case with great conviction.
But conviction in the absence of evidence can be dangerous. At times, enthusiasm for a particular craft skill, however well intended, can be misleading. The demonstrated manifestation that a craft has been applied, is not evidence that the relationship between the well crafted information and the people who use it is as we would want it to be, however deep the conviction.
Regrettably, so deep has the conviction been—most notably among those who chose the banner of plain language to describe information design—that they have not felt the need to offer evidence to back their convictions. It has seemed to them obvious and beyond doubt (dare one say crystal clear?) that they can achieve best practice in information design by applying a few simple formal rules of language and graphic design.
Here again, as with the heroic designers, we are left with a question. How do we know that it works? How do we know that the designs created following these formal rules lead to a relationship between people and information which is useful, productive and satisfying for the people concerned?
Once again the evidence for the relationship is not present in the design itself. We can only take it on trust that the relationship is as we would wish it to be.
This has not been a satisfactory basis for those of us who have sought a higher standard of proof than evidence of traditional craft practices at work. Indeed, on investigation, my colleagues and I have shown in a number of studies that claims by some so called ‘experts’ in plain English about the performance of their information design work have been misleading or wrong. Most importantly, the circuit breaker here, as with the heroic practices, is evidence. In the case of plain English, we collected evidence which showed that plain English ‘improvements’ to documents did not necessarily lead to improvements in the documents’ usability.
Information design as a scientific practice
One option taken by information designers in search of a way out of the mercurial nature of relationships has been to adopt a scientifically minded approach, looking for generalisations about practice based on experimental evidence and scientific theory. The general argument that is advanced by the scientifically minded is that human beings, like the rest of creation, are subject to the laws of nature. Therefore, if we can understand the scientific laws of nature that apply to people using information, then we can derive a set of generalisations to inform information design practice.
This, they have argued, would put information design onto an altogether more secure foundation. A practice based on science would be a technology with predictable outcomes. Thus we could be sure that the relationship between people and information would be useful, productive, and satisfying because we understood the underlying laws of nature that made it so.
On the positive side, the experimental evidence has shown that many of the maxims of good craft practice can lead to successful design solutions.
But, perversely, the evidence also shows that applying these maxims is not a sufficient basis for good practice. This is the overwhelming practical conclusion from much of the document design and human computer interaction research of the last three decades; the design of a document or computer interface may be developed according to all the empirically validated maxims of our craft , and our most advanced theories of cognitive processes, and they might still not work effectively.
This is not how the story is usually told, but the recent acceptance of usability testing as an essential part of interface design, is an admission that scientific theory in itself has not provided us with useful predictive tools.
A studio based practice
Before moving on to consider other ways forward, I want to pause and reflect on information design practice from a slightly different point of view. I want to look at what information designers following the heroic, formal, and scientific approaches actually do, day to day in their practices. This is an important question for us at this conference, because we use our knowledge of today’s information design practice to plan the curriculum for educating tomorrows information designers.
One of the persistent aspects of design practice across these three approaches, is that the core practice remains largely studio based—information designers sit at a desk, drawing board, or computer and craft the words and appearances of designs. The only differences among these approaches are the different ways of thinking and the different skills and bodies of knowledge that are brought to bear on studio practice—an inner sensibility, craft skill, or knowledge of research results.
But the core practice remains studio based. Indeed, one could view these different approaches, and their claims to legitimacy, as attempts to keep the core practice of information design as a studio based activity. But the central question—how do we know whether or not our designs work, whether we have successfully managed the relation between people and information?—remained unanswered within the studio, and inevitably forces us out of the studio and into people’s live experience.
Moving outside the studio
It was only when we began to change our practice—doing half our work outside the studio—that we began to find real answers to this central question.
I first experimented with ways of integrating studio and lived experience, while teaching information design students in the 1960’s (Sless 1979) However, it was some years later in the mid eighties, with the invention of DTP, that it became possible to explore these different ways of working systematically and on a large scale.
I was given a wonderful opportunity to do so when, in 1983 I was asked to help the Australian Tax Office redesign the annual tax form used by most salary and wage earners.
We began to explore what I had called in the 1970s a conversational strategy (Sless 1978)—alternating between designing documents and asking people to use the documents. In total, over two years, the Tax Office team went through 19 such cycles, and this gave me, as a researcher, wonderful opportunities for refinement and further development of this way of working, to the point where we felt we had invented a new way of working.
My own work and that of my colleagues at our Institute had, of course, developed in parallel with many other people in our field, and I doubt that any one of us could lay exclusive claim to having invented these ways of working.
In many respects, we have not really invented anything. We have rediscovered a rather simple and obvious fact, namely: if you are interested in finding out what information people want, and whether or not they can use information productively, you need to go out and ask them, notice what they do, and take note of what they find difficult, so that you can fix it.
Many organisations we work with, think of this activity as ‘market research’ or ‘usability testing’. And because it is too difficult to explain why it isn’t these activities, we tend to let them call it that. But that is not how we describe our direct involvement to ourselves, and we make clear to the people that we become involved with that we are not doing market research or testing.
As I have said recently, this aspect of our practice is not really science, it is a form of politeness (Sless 1997)—making sure that we find out what people want, and then making sure that what we design for them allows them to do what they want. The detailed training that we give our own staff in undertaking this type of work is more like teaching etiquette and good manners than teaching a research methodology, though it is no less rigorous and demanding, for all that.
Central to this polite practice is respectful direct involvement with people doing things with information, so that we can develop rules that allow people to do interesting and sometimes useful things with the designs we create.
This polite practice, that goes on outside the studio, is where we begin and end our projects. In the beginning we find out how the information might be useful to people—often what we find is radically different to the brief we are given by a client.
In the end we measure and value the extent to which the information we have designed leads to a useful, productive, and satisfying relationship. In between, we make many trips outside the studio to explore and notice the variety of different ways in which people use our designs. Indeed, we actively look for and encourage the possibility of differences. This makes our investigations quite fascinating. Most of us get a great deal of pleasure out of what we notice. There is something quite magical and extraordinary, and at the same time humbling, in noticing how ordinary people use information in ways that none of us could have anticipated as we sat at our desks crafting the words and layouts.
The experience in this engagement is like being involved in continual revelation. Something new happens and surprises you every time.
Following these revelations, we return—with a sense of awe and humility (and sometimes frustration)—back into the studio and try again. Importantly, the same type of analytic thinking and decision making that goes on in the studio—creating metaphors, making comparisons, seeing patterns—continues when we analyse what people do with our designs, and when we make decisions to change the designs.
The big big difference is that our design practice is both in and out of the studio. The same staff who find out what people want also craft the words and design the appearances of things, and then they go out and watch, listen and ask questions of the people using the information. They then return to the studio and change whatever needs to be changed to make it work better, and they repeat this process until they achieve a satisfactory performance with the design.
Because such work grows out of collaborating, there are no heroes; in many instances it is difficult to know which individual was actually responsible for a particular design decision. The creativity emerges from the conversation between people, not from individuals. Indeed, designers with heroic ambitions are uncomfortable with this way of working.
But the prize at the end of this way of working is significant.
At the end we have evidence of a design’s performance, something that is only possible because of our direct involvement with people doing things with our designs. Indeed, in many cases we can guarantee the performance of a design to clients, telling them how much money they will make or save, and what quality of relationship people will be able to experience in their dealings with the client’s organisation.
So the quest for a practice that enables us to satisfy our passion to help improve the relationship between people and information, so that the relationship is useful, productive and satisfying, has led us to explore a number of alternatives over the last few years. In many ways, this has led to a radical simplification of what it means to do information design.
This makes the task of developing an underlying rationale for information design education somewhat easier. A lot of superfluous baggage can be jettisoned. We do not have to pretend to be heroic or scientific.
We need to teach the next generation the very best of studio craft skills as writers, editors and graphic designers across a range of traditional and new technologies. They need to know about the rich history of our practice, so that they can productively plunder the past. We need to teach them the listening, observing and collaborating crafts that take us out of the studio and into people’s lived experience. And, of course, we need to teach them how to manage, integrate, and synthesise all of these into a productive outcome.
Above all else, we need to first attract people who will share our passion, because at the core of our craft there is something that transcends craft or technique: it is a profound respect for people.
Garland, K. (1994) Mr Beck’s Underground Map,
Harrow Weald, Middlesex, Capital Transport Publishing
Jonassen, D. (ed) (1982) The Technology of Text: principles for structuring , designing, and displaying text. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Educational Technology Publications.
Miller, R. (1984). Transaction structures and format in form design. In: H. Zwaga., and R. Easterby (eds), Information Design (529–544). Chichester, John Wiley & Sons.
Sless, D. (1978) Visual thinking: Adelaide, Adelaide University.
Sless, D. (1979) Image design and modification: an experimental project in transforming. Information Design Journal, 1, (2), 74–80.
Sless, David. (1997) Theory for practice. Communication News 10(4) 1–4.
Stiff, P. (1993). Graphic design, MetaDesign, and information design, Information design Journal 7, (1) 41–46.
I would like to thank Ruth Shrensky for her valuable comments on an earlier draft of this paper, Conrad Taylor for suggesting the Topic, Clive Richards and Coventry University for making it possible for me to be at the conference, and last but not least, my colleagues at the Communication Research Institute of Australia whose work inspires this paper and supports me attending this conference.