a debate about the definition of the information design field

Interesting points made at http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/information_design_the_understanding_discipline

“There is not consensus on exactly what information design is. Definitions of the discipline from stakeholders who associate themselves with the field are consistent only in that they are typically high level, not very concrete and do not offer much in the way of direct practical application.

Consider these definitions of information design taken from a broad cross-section of authorities associated with the field:

  • Complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency
  • The point of intersection between language disciplines, art and aesthetic disciplines, information disciplines, communication disciplines, behavior and cognition disciplines, business and law and media production technologies
  • “Sense-Making”
  • The structure through which visual disciplines are expressed
  • Contributed to by writers, researchers, aestheticians, popularizers, collectors, inventors, systematizers and analysts, as well as universalists
  • The defining, planning and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments it is presented in with the intention of achieving particular objectives in relation to the needs of users
  • How we interact with and represent information
  • A design that supports the goals of the user and the creator


Another notable characteristic of information design is the broad range of fields that associate themselves with it. There are meaningful groups within graphic designers, writers and information architects that all make some claim to the term information design. Typically, disciplines are easy to define in at least a basic tactical way. Graphic designers provide visual solutions. Writers provide written solutions. Information architects provide structural design solutions. Information design ostensibly comes down to a broad set of information deliverables, not any single type or particular component of other disciplines.

Information design as integrator

In the past I have written that information design is the director of other disciplines, borrowing the metaphor of a movie director that Beth Mazur and a number of others have used in this and related contexts. In retrospect, I do not think that analogy is correct. Rather, information design is the integrator that brings other disciplines together to create excellent information solutions.

Information design addresses high level information problems to provide the most possible clarity, understanding and effectiveness. It is not important what tools are used to achieve it, but rather that the final deliverable provides the greatest possible degree of understanding. In order to achieve that ambitious end, information design must be open to any and every discipline or field of thought. It must also encourage the implementation of systemized processes for the design of successful information, synthesizing the established processes in the myriad of information disciplines.

Even more, information design must actively encourage and participate in research that increases our understanding of information and the effect that it has: how and why people respond to information, how the human brain processes information and builds knowledge, as well as how humans organize knowledge and convert it into improved behavior and operation. Better understanding of these factors will enable us to create the best possible information, interfaces and communications.

Information design serves as a resource for other disciplines engaged in the creation of better understanding and the building of human knowledge. By identifying relevant disciplines, networking with thought leaders and tactical practitioners, and participating in the creation of a body of knowledge, information design informs the activities and improves the capabilities of anyone engaged in creating information.

Think of it this way: graphic design (or information architecture or technical writing, etc.) is to information design as geometry (or algebra or calculus, etc.) is to mathematics. Each of the different disciplines is important and advanced in their own right, but they are also part of a greater, integrated whole. Mathematics is not more important than geometry; it is simply the area of endeavor that geometry falls within. Information design is a macro approach that clarifies relationships between different disciplines participating together as part of a powerful chorus. It provides valuable causality and helps clarify relationships between the areas that fall within its domain.

Information designer as consultant and tactician

Given that information design is the integrator of other disciplines, who is an information designer? The role can manifest in either a general or specific way:

  • As a consultant, an information designer is someone who evaluates information problems in order to recommend the best possible solutions. A generalist with a broad yet solid understanding of human and social factors, information, communication, experience, organizations, systems and delivery platforms, this person guides people and organizations toward appropriate solutions.
  • As a tactician, an information designer is anyone with a deep, specialized knowledge of one or more tactical disciplines that individually (or as part of a team) creates information solutions. They use the title because they consciously embrace information design as a guide for maximizing understanding through the communication of their deliverables”
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