The Value of Information Design Expertise

Communication is becoming more and more visualized. The popularity of visualizations continues to skyrocket: they’re eye-catching, engaging, and approachable entry points to complex (and simple) data and subject matter. Alluring as they may be, visualizations are only effective when they communicate ideas, phenomena, and concepts clearly. Achieving that clarity takes considerable experience and effort. 

At the heart of effective visual communication is information design, the practice of organizing and presenting information to enable understanding. Information design is a profession built upon a strong foundation of history, research, and literature, and it spans a diverse range of practices concerned with signs and symbols, documents, interactions, environments, and experiences. However, despite the breadth and richness of the field, attention these days focuses narrowly on two subsets of information design — infographics and data visualization — and more specifically, how to make them and how to use them. 

Demand is high for visualization tools, skills, and services, but what about information design expertise?

Fast and cheap, but is it good?

An entire viz-industry has emerged to meet the growing appetite for visualizations, regardless of whether they’re meant to inform, explain, entertain, persuade, or do all of the above. With so many visualization “solutions” available today, there seems to be little need to actually learn visual communication principles or hire experienced information designers. There are countless software packages, free online tools, icon libraries, and pre-designed templates for making “professional” information graphics, diagrams, data visualizations, and whole presentations. For those who have neither the time nor the patience to go the do-it-yourself route, there are plenty of infographic shops and designers-for-hire who dubiously offer high-quality work at rock-bottom prices.

This rising trend of automation and commoditization is a boon for those who just want something quick, inexpensive, visually appealing, and (hopefully) understandable. But as the old design saying goes, if you want good, fast, and cheap, you only get to pick two.

Do you really need an infographic?

A common misconception about information design is that it’s only about making infographics or data visualizations. The rise of marketing infographics over the past 10 years and explosion of online content about all things “viz” have put beautiful visual artifacts on a pedestal, with varying degrees of attention paid to the necessary thinking and reasoning skill behind their creation. Just because certain kinds of visual solutions are widely popular doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the only solutions available. It takes working with an information design professional to help one more deeply understand a communication challenge and see the full spectrum of possible solutions to address it: a pocket card, a one-pager, a brochure, a poster, a presentation, a book, an animated video, a website, an interactive online feature, a social media campaign, an app, an exhibit, a learning system, etc.

Why does information design expertise matter?

Experienced information designers are problem solvers who can help people make sense of their situation and the data/content involved in order to arrive at the most appropriate solution that produces the best outcome. More than just “graphics,” information design expertise consists of a diverse set of skills, tools, methods, and sensitivities:

  • Process skills and tools
  • Design/production skills and tools
  • Visual, psychological, and cognitive principles
  • User/audience research skills and methods
  • Testing and evaluation skills and methods
  • Client business/organizational context understanding
  • Social, cultural, and environmental context understanding

One of the most valuable things an experienced information designer does is help a client work through complex, unframed challenges, when no software tool or one-off intervention will suffice. In such cases, the aim is to help a client see her situation from many new perspectives throughout out a project — by surveying the big picture, examining the individual components, deepening understanding of the people involved through their eyes, exploring data and content from multiple views, and showing what impact an end solution has once it’s launched. Enabling this perspective shift is especially critical before a project even begins, when an information designer asks basic questions and unpacks the initial brief in order to determine the true need, rather than simply satisfying the immediate want for a visual something-or-other.

Reframing perceived visualization challenges as communication and understanding challenges (that are linked to other institutional or organizational challenges) not only encourages a new way of thinking about what goals needs to be met, but also broadens the range of possible solutions to achieve those goals and helps maximize the impact of the overall outcome. For instance, an initial challenge framed as “How might I create an attractive data visualization for my report?” can be more broadly reframed as “How might I clearly communicate the findings of my research to my audience?” to open up new avenues of thinking. And when it comes to the actual designing part, experienced information designers possess a wealth of knowledge about relevant historical works and pertinent research, as well as high proficiency with color, typography, visual hierarchies, interactive functionality and usability, production methods, performance assessment, and many other areas.  

“Yes, all I want is an infographic!”

Of course, there are times when all someone really needs is a visual explanation or data display for a report or presentation. The reality is that short timeframes, tight budgets, and other constraints can limit one’s choices when faced with a visual communication task, so the job has to get done somehow. Experienced information designers can certainly help with small, framed design engagements. If that isn’t an option, a polite inquiry may return some valuable advice and resources to guide the way forward: top books to read, websites to visit, courses and workshops to take, or even referrals to other skilled designers who might be a better fit.

There are more ways than ever to get information across visually, and choosing the right option can be challenging. When the situation arises, it’s best to talk to someone with the sensemaking know-how to help navigate communication challenges — an experienced information designer!