Those who read and studied Richard Saul Wurman and Edward Tufte, and adored the artifacts they created and curated, look up to the two godfathers of information design with respect and admiration. Wurman, who famously coined the term information architecture, published “Information Architects” a book featuring influential designers from the 20th century. Tufte’s reach has expanded beyond book series to workshops, lectures, posters and graph paper.
But a lot has changed since Wurman and Tufte began their enterprises. Information design is on screen, interactive, available on our mobile devices, and thanks to easily-accessible tools, part of a do-it-yourself culture.
Social Connections + Screen Sizes
Today we can share charts, graphs, maps and diagrams immediately through any social media channel, instantaneously on our mobile device. We can read and experience information design curated and created by anyone around the globe. As screen sizes shrink down to fit on our wrists, we’ll become connected in new ways, whether on an Android or Apple wristwatch.
What about higher-definition screens, as large as (or larger than) the walls in our house? When it comes to the direction of information design, opinions differ, but one thing is certain: Information design will become increasingly more pervasive.
Mike Wirth, Associate Professor of New Media Design at Queens University of Charlotte, has produced information design for a wide range of applications. Wirth has won a Design for America 2010 Process Transparency Award for “How Our Laws Are Made” infographic, along with other relevant experiences and accolades on his resume.
In terms of where his research is heading, Wirth says, “Ultimately, I want see more visual and visualization literacy work it’s way into the K-12 system and Higher Education.” Information design has long been used as an educational component for the likes of textbooks, lecture materials and other instructional tools. Now that tablets are in most elementary and middle schools, information design can be experienced in new, interactive ways by students at a young age.
Information Design + Wearable Tech
When I spoke with Wirth about information design today, and where it’s headed, I suggested that wearable tech, such as watches and glasses, were the next frontier. Keep in mind that the smaller the screen, the more stripped down the design has to be. This can be a challenge, or a thing of beauty, as Jony Ive and Apple demonstrated with iOS 7, iOS 8 and now the Apple Watch.
“True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absences of clutter or ornamentation,” Ive said, “It’s about bringing order to complexity.” With wearables, and smaller screens, you have less real estate, so composition becomes even more challenging.
Wirth, who has attended Edward Tufte’s seminars, suggested that it’s going to be about bigger, not smaller: “…from Tufte’s perspective, it’s about the larger format, larger screens, and the ‘ink to data ratio.’ 4K televisions, super HD screens will give us the ability to zoom in, and read micro-printed content.”
Tufte isn’t the only one who thinks bigger is better. Turn on any science fiction movie, and you’ll see big screens, full of rich content, for browsing, mapping, tracking, comparing and analyzing information.
Accessible Infographics + Democratization of Data
Data sets are available in nearly any corner of the internet, and, with them, you can interpret the data, do analysis and orchestrate and compose your own information design or designs. Take NPR’s guide to jokes featured in “Arrested Development.” It uses data sourced from the online TV database via a Creative Commons 3.0 license, giving users the opportunity to share and adapt the data. Or, if you’d rather do it yourself, you can collect the data or conduct your own surveys with relative ease, provided you have the right tools.
Why are we seeing so much data in so many places, at times given away for free (and, in some cases, for socially conscious reasons)? The wealth of information design and the availability of data sets will likely increase over the coming years.
Robert Kosara, Research Scientist at Tableau Software, suggests tools and approachability are enabling everyone and anyone to embark on our own information design missions. Kosara says, “…people are coming into those fields who have some background in computing, or who aren’t afraid to learn the right tools, and the tools are becoming better and more approachable.” With 15 years of experience in the field, Kosara has seen a lot of changes happen, and has his finger on the pulse of what’s current and what’s next.
Having received his Ph.D. at Vienna University of Technology in Vienna, Austria, Kosara got into teaching, working as an Assistant Professor and then Associate Professor at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina. Now a full-time employee at Tableau Software, Kosara continues to be a well-respected academic and scientist, who frequently writes about information design and data visualization at his own blog.
For information designers eager to get their hands on a computer with high processing power, and the software needed to render beautiful graphics, you better think again. Kosara argues that success, let alone intriguing and meaningful information design, isn’t as instantaneous as running content through software.
“Making data available is one thing, but it’s usually just the first step. Most people don’t have the means, or the time, or the tenacity to figure out how to get to the data, dig through it and find the interesting bits. Making that available in a form that is easily accessible and consumed is very important. Without that, the data might as well not have been released, since very few people would ever bother looking into it,” he says. Kosara identifies what The New York Times graphic department has done, and continues to do, as “trailblazing” – especially their new venture, The UpShot. Kosara goes into detail about those and other data journalism enterprises in his blog posts.
When sharing notes about bookmarks and Twitter followers with Mike Wirth, he and I agreed that the Pew Research Center delivers plenty of information design to fill your eyes. They have a broad collection of results from polls and research, with much of the data translated into charts, maps, diagrams and the like.
If you like your information design bite-sized, in 140 characters or less, be sure to follow them on Twitter. Other notable hubs for information design, recommended by Wirth, include Good Magazine and History Shots. Want to cover your wall with information design? Be prepared to drop some coin at History Shots.
You, The Chart, Graph, Diagram
Some college freshman get tasked with recording how they spend their day, tracking work done, food and coffee consumed, homework done, naps taken and Netflix movies watched. It’s a study in human experience, and one that forces students to look at themselves through the lens of time, work and effort.
If you want to take a look at how one designer spends his life, he’s made it available through information design published at his website. Nicholas Feltron’s personal annual reports are an autobiographical, infographic take on his life.
Notable Information Design on Twitter
Feltron’s endeavors beg the question: Will his work inspire others and spark a trend, where rather than using data sets found online in Creative Commons repositories, we use ourselves and our own experiences? By creating “personal annual reports” would we be able to better assess what we do well and also locate our pain points and challenges? Is this a method to improve ourselves? Only time will tell. If you’d rather not look in the mirror, at autobiographical-infographics, I’ll leave you with this collection of Twitter accounts instead:
What’s your favorite information design Twitter feed to follow? Favorite information design websites? Share the accounts and sites you follow by mentioning me (@JasonTselentis) in your tweet for a chance to be part of my forthcoming Infographics Top Tweets post here at HOWdesign.com.
To stay up on what’s new in information design and evolving tech, don’t miss the HOW Interactive Design Conference series.