What is Information Design?

By Staff Writer Published on January 10, 2012

The question came up recently: what is information design? Is it different from graphic design? The answer to that lies in the terms themselves: Information. Design. In other words, the design of information.

Surely graphic design encompasses information design, and much of the material  associated with, let’s say packaging, involves some bona fide information—such as weight, ingredients, nutrition information, company address, place of manufacture, and so forth. But what if the amount of information you are dealing with is much larger, more specific, and related? Weight, ingredients, nutrition information, company address, and place of manufacture are information, but their relationship, if any, is tenuous at best. But what if you have data or information specific to some specialized endeavor of interest to a specific audience? Is a graphic designer qualified to handle that kind of work? Should an information designer have some kind of knowledge of the subject matter? Is a graphic designer who creates designs which tempt consumers to buy things? Is an information designer someone who displays information that people can use?

According to Wikipedia, “Information design is the skill and practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Where the data is complex or unstructured, a visual representation can express its meaning more clearly to the viewer. Information design began as a subset of, or synonym for, graphic design, and is often taught as part of graphic design courses. One of the first uses of the term was by the London graphic design consultancy Pentagram, who used the term in the 1970s to mean their graphic design, as distinct from product or other kinds of design. Since then, the term has come to be used specifically for graphic design for displaying information effectively, rather than just attractively or for artistic expression.” (Source: “Information Design“)

As with many things, the practice has been around a lot longer than the term. There are many historical examples of information design which rival any contemporary exemplars. The Wikipedia entry for information design provides links to a map created in 1861 by civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard which diagrams Napoleon’s March, 1812-1813. Prior to this famous example, physician John Snow mapped clusters of cholera in the London epidemic of 1854. Another historical example is one I have on my own wall: E. J. Quinby’s Musical Pitch Relation Chart, which conveniently displays the ranges of instruments in the orchestra. Another example of surreptitious information design, one so easily overlooked, is the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Here are some excellent examples of historical and contemporary Information Design:

Graphics using Information Design (Historical)
> John Snow’s Cholera Map (1854)
> C. J. Minard: Napoleon’s March (1861)
> H.C. Beck: Underground Railway (1941)
> E. J. Quinby’s Musical Pitch Relation Chart

Graphics using Information Design (Contemporary)
> Information is Beautiful
> Tyler Lang: Universal Demand poster
> Tyler Lang: Universal Impact poster
> Wirth: How Laws Are Made
> Fábio Abreu: Destructive Energy in Chile
> Dawgeared: 11 Beautiful Examples of Infographics
> Infographics by Francesco Mugnai
> 15 Beautifully Illustrated Infographics For Your Inspiration
> The Periodic Table of Visual Design Methods
> Stock Mapper
> Theodore Gray’s Photographic Periodic Table of the Elements

Interactive Graphics using Information Design
> Interactive Frequency Chart
> Interactive Periodic Table of the Elements

Videos using Information Design
> McCandless: The Beauty of Data Visualization
> Arcas: Demos Photosynth
> Rosling: The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen
> Rosling: The Truth about HIV
> Lawler: Tours Microsoft Virtual Earth
> Wujec: Three Ways the Brain Creates Meaning
> Jarvis: The Crisis of Credit Visualized

Author Bio:
Jeffrey Gold is the Associate Dean of Interactive Communication Design in the Department of Visual Communications for Stevens-Henager College Online. He has been working in graphic design, information design, copy writing, marketing communications, branding, technical writing, technical illustration, web development, audio production, and film since 1988. Jeffrey Gold has  a technical (physics, mathematics), communication (professional), and artistic (dramatic writing, film) background and was educated at Westminster College, Cambridge University, University of Utah, and the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis).