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InfoDesign: Understanding by Design

Research Report by Mike Godwin
(created 8/30/06; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Related Blogs

Original Object for Study description

InfoDesign: Understanding by Design, is a blog devoted to the relatively new discipline of Information Design. The blog, maintained by a small team of people, is widely touted as one of the most comprehensive views of the growing field of Information Design. New posts appear approximately weekly, compiling links to pertinent articles, people, companies, organizations, degree programs, publications, events, and job postings. Like any blog, there is little native content on InfoDesign to review, as it is primarily links to articles and websites. For the Transliteracies project, InfoDesign is relevant in two capacities: as a guide to the field of Information Design – a young academic and professional field devoted largely to improving online reading, and as an index to the most important topics within the field. Every link to a news article is categorized, and each of these categories – there are 35 currently – are browsable. These 35 categories read as a list of what’s important in information design right now, and each will be reviewed for relevance to the Transliteracies project.

Several websites and unmoderated mailing lists founded between 1994 and 1997 merged into a single InformationDesign.org website in 2004. The mailing lists are still in use today and users can join them through the lists link. While the main sections of the website are self-explanatory, some statistics about the site might convey a sense of its scale of and the discipline in general: as of August 2006 there are 61 people listed under the who’s who, 52 companies, 14 organizations in 8 categories, 7 degree granting programs, 45 books, 5 journals, and about 16 conferences listed for 2006.

There are 35 categories for news links, and while many of them mimic Transliteracies own general categories perhaps some of the links within Information Design are suggestive of areas that may be under-represented in our project’s research. Here is a brief explanation of the content of the links in each category:

1. Accessibility addresses issues of design for use by the visual or hearing impaired and addresses technological hurdles to accessibility such as limited bandwidth, or slow equipment.

2. Adaptation refers to a system that adapts to its user; one example might be a search engine that remembers the types of links that a user followed and then prioritizes those sorts of sites in a list.

3. Audio Design investigates design and integration of audio components.

4. Collab Web links to articles about emergent web communities such as wikis.

5. Classics are the “classic” texts and examples of information design. These tend to focus on the importance of information design and how-to of good design practices.

6. Complexity deals with how to simplify complex problems and the necessity of simplification for utility and ease-of-use.

7. Content management covers all links related to Content Management Systems, from strategies for storage and transfer of data, to good design of CMS interfaces.

8. Events are conferences and workshops on related topics: usability, design, social and structural computing, information architecture, technology, user assistance, etc.

9. HCI, or Human-Computer interaction, focuses on general guidelines for user interface design with many articles discussing the “desktop” metaphor and alternatives to it.

10. Hypertext on the history and development of links and text and their interrelationships.

11. Information architecture lists conferences and papers that discuss data storage, accessibility, and user interface with such systems. In a broad sense, structuring information for a purpose.

12. Information design is web graphics and design with online readability and usability in mind, though this section covers all areas of design including print, product, etc. This is largely a catch-all for the site and includes many more posts than any other category.

13. Information graphics are graphics that convey a lot of information succinctly; this category has an emphasis on non-interactive, i.e. print or static, images.

14. InfoViz is information graphics with an emphasis on animation and interactivity.

15. Instructional design is discussions of design in light of differing learning methods. This section addresses how design can address the many ways that people learn to improve instruction.

16. Interaction design explores how we, as humans, interact on a physical level with our digital surroundings: mobile phones, PDAs, wireless services, etc.

17. Interviews that are relevant to information design.

18. Metadata is a section on established and emerging metadata formats and methodology.

19. Mobile design discusses accessing the web from a phone or gps or other mobile device.

20. Navigation explores browser design and navigation of the web in general.

21. Patterns in data, semantics, and human or device interactions.

22. Personas are the “types” that a designer might design for. This section also discusses the problems and benefits of this approach and includes some examples of designing to a persona that have worked well.

23. Podcasts contains information design related podcasts.

24. Search discusses how to design for integration with existing search algorithms. For instance, how to smoothly integrate search methodologies within your own site.

25. Special contains InfoDesign profiles or interviews with people in the field.

26. TechCom tracks trends in technical communication, which includes technical manuals, as well as technical summaries, blurbs, and previews. This also lists links to style guides that specifically address different sectors of online writing.

27. Technology follows emerging technologies in information design: microformats, AJAX, XML, PHP, CSS, podcasts etc. – these are largely programming languages and new widely-distributed alternative formats, such as ipods.

28. Typography in print and on the web, including typographic literacy, associative and technical implications of different fonts.

29. UCD or User centered Design is focused on not only helping humans design better, but designing systems that are easier for humans to use.

30. Usability contains things like back buttons and expert reviews versus user trials. a lot of cross-over with what helps sell things i.e., big photos to show detail, good photographs, and bullet point writing, etc.

31. User Experience advocates stepping beyond designing within a monitor to designing an entire experience: the customer service, the product, look of the sales website or store, placement, etc. Learning ways to design for an entire environment and all interactions.

32. Visual design addresses icons, photos, color analysis, color usability tools and related findings in psychology or medicine.

33. Weblogs is a list of related weblogs.

34. Wireframes is a small category with sites related to wireframes – the “frames” that dictate dimensions and placement within tables of content on web pages and in browsers.

35. Writing lists guides to writing for the web, style guides, etc.

Research Context:
Information design is a young discipline and as such is still shaping its own research context. The emphasis seems to be on collecting and collating research done in other disciplines – psychology, anthropology, engineering, and computer science, for example – and applying it to smarter design, particularly of websites, but also of print and “experience.” As with all young disciplines, there is the necessity of proving itself as useful, but also as distinct from other existing fields. Looking through the InfoDesign site, I found myself frequently wondering if these concentrations within information design really constituted separate categories. Consider user-centered design versus experience design or interaction design; is there really that broad a difference to warrant divided inquiry? There seems to be similar overlap between information visualization, information graphics, visual design. Overall, there seems to be a lot of the same research and conversation happening in different quadrants with different titles categorizing the discourse. Still, such instability in organization may characterize any young, emerging field.

Such problems are to be expected when embarking on such a project, and these problems should not overshadow the advances the field has made. Unifying such disparate fields is a necessary step towards all of the goals of good information design, and InfoDesign has done an admirable job collating just such varied influences.

Technical Analysis:
Information Design is primarily practiced and studied by those in the web design industry with some cross-over into the print industry. Web design is largely practiced for-profit in the commercial sector and therefore may be reluctant to conduct experiments that might reduce profit. As information design departments become more common in universities, perhaps this will change the tone of future research done in the field. This is not to say that there isn’t smart writing and research about information design now, but only to note that there are occasional lapses into corporate jargon and cheerleading that can undermine the value of the discourse.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

Developments in Information Design should be highly pertinent to anyone looking to understand the future of online reading as this is a discipline devoted to a holistic and comprehensive understanding of the exchange of information, not only online, but in general. Areas such as accessibility, typography, browser integration, and technology are all quite obviously related to the investigation of online reading; but other topics within Information Design such as experience design, user-centered design, audio design, or mobile design perhaps signal future phases for consideration. How do people go about accessing online reading – in a library, a coffee shop – how do these environments change online reading, and how can these disparate environments be included in a comprehensive model of online reading?

Resources for Further Study:

  tl, 08.30.06

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