We unabashedly admire well-designed cars, houses and coffeemakers. However, we often fail to recognize or appreciate well-designed information, which can be found in advertising, DIY videos, book covers and magazine layouts, as well as lurk menacingly in propaganda.
Like any form of design, information design is meant to increase functionality, in this case of words, numbers and images, so they effectively convey a message, provide useful background or describe how something works. In fact, function is the prime objective of graphic design starting with attracting eyeballs, then holding the attention of viewers and finally delivering content in ways people can absorb, relate to and remember. Good design has as much to do with how something works as it does with how something looks.
Information design can be used to regulate the temperature of content by infusing emotion – or stoking fear. Information design can easily slip into disinformation with the purpose of influencing opinion, reinforcing beliefs or inciting action. Information design is pervasive and derives its power in part through invisibility. Deciphering the identity of a disinformation designer can be difficult.
Despite its potential for abuse, information design serves a valuable purpose by helping people communicate important information. Most of us are too busy to wade through a jumble of facts. We depend on information designers to package content so it’s accessible, logical and organized. That typically means packaging words and numbers with visual images in a pleasing, functional format. Another way of thinking about information design is that it humanizes impersonal content.
Shrinking attention spans, a blizzard of information and a torrent of online platforms has made information design essential to effective communication, whether it’s for marketing, influence or news. Nowadays, resumes as well as websites must rise to the occasion of good design to get noticed and earn clicks.
The core principle of information design is functionality and that starts with designing information with a specific audience in mind. Medical journals look and read differently than Newsweek. Young adults are drawn to different content and information delivery modes than older adults. Task number one for information designers is to gain an intimate knowledge of their intended viewers, to learn what they like and what they avoid like the plague.
Knowing the habits and preferences of a particular audience offers cues on how to design information and where to place it. There is no one-size-fits-all format. The objective is to create a design that strikes an affinity as well as conveys information. Viewers ideally should see the information design as designed for them. Of course, no matter how perfect the design, the information design won’t serve its purpose unless it is placed where the intended audience can find and view it. Execution is as much a part of information design as art.
The principles of information design correspond with other forms of design. They include unity, harmony, balance, hierarchy, scale, emphasis and comparison or contrast. These principles work in unison to create a picture of information that quickly resonates with viewers by tapping into familiar brain patterns of recognition and recall. The shape of a Ferrari conveys an image of sleekness and speed. A front porch with a swing connotes a home. A catchy headline, descriptive subheads, striking illustrations and coherent charts help viewers collect and store information in the proper file cabinets of their brains.
Graphic design is often lumped in with artistic design. The kinship is real, though the goals can be quite different. Good graphic design and artistic design both make strong appeals to the eye. Where the two diverge is in their jobs. Graphic designers want to grab eyeballs to guide them through informational content. Furniture designer Charles Eames said, “Design is an expression of its purpose, which may later be called art”. When art and design merge to convey information effectively, communicators call that merger “elegance”.
Elegant information design looks obvious, but it requires discipline and usually trial and error to achieve. The information designer must zero in on the key takeaway and the most credible supporting facts. The designer must rate the importance of informational content to create a hierarchy for the design. The designer then must conjure a successful pathway for the viewer journey through the information. The pathway often includes some combination of telling a story, providing a logic train and sequencing key points that in a way that leaves no confusion about the information’s meaning and significance.
Elegant information design only occurs when content generators have the patience to let designers achieve it and the confidence to try something new – and sometimes something daring. The enemy of elegant information design is often past success, which stands in the way of purposeful change.
Information designers who produce elegant information designs are ruthless in rooting out what isn’t essential – the classic case of less is more, despite pressures to add this or that, which doesn’t actually add anything but clutter.
Lest you think information design is distinct from good writing, you would be wrong. Information designers either are good writers or recognize good writing – clear, crisp thoughts expressed in tightly composed prose. Viewers don’t want to know what you know; they want you to tell them what they need or would like to know. The information designer’s task is to draw in viewers with a packet of information they can’t resist. [Tip: When it comes to writing, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice just makes your writing better.]
When people read mystery novels, they expect to be kept in suspense. That’s not true when people view content to gain useful information. They want to access and understand it easily and comprehensibly. That’s the job of information designers who ply their skills, knowledge and experience to create something so elegant that viewers don’t even realize it is designed to please.