Friday, 25 April 2008

Information Design

I was accosted this morning on the way to work by a lady from Nottingham transport canvassing opinions over the proposed redesign of local bus timetables.

It got me thinking on the bus into work, about just how much information design is overlooked by the general population and indeed by some designers and educators. In this day and age information is all around us and being able to navigate that information in a clear and cohesive way is paramount. Since we all lead such busy lives, being able to decipher information, such as when is the next bus or train, how much fat or sugar is in my food and how to use my in car sat nav, becomes ever more important. Being in the business of education, many students don't see the importance of this function. They take it all for granted and only seem to want to make things look 'cool'. It's a gross over-generalization, but branding has overtaken many of the fundamental disciplines within graphic design. We are preoccupied with how our brands say something about us, rather than proposing methods to wade through the torrent of data thrown at us everyday.

I was reminded of a conversation with Michael Beirut of Pentagram about the New York Subway system map, when I took a group of students to visit the Studio on a field trip recently. One of the students asked a question about why he thought the NY subway map wasn't as successful as the Henry Beck London Underground map.

He talked about the fact that in 1979 Massimo Vignelli redesigned the map, with some of Henry Beck's principles in mind. The result was a very clear and simple map that dispensed with realism in favour of usability. The outcome, although beautiful and easy to navigate was discarded as many thought that the distortion of certain elements on the map, such as Central Park being shortened was tantamount to sacrilege. So why can a method work for one audience and not for another? I have no answers to this, but it did get me thinking about how an audience may need some time to live with a design in order to adapt to the change.

Another of the many thoughts that ran through my head were about the fact that lots of the published books about information design, were essentially about presenting data and not necessarily usability. In fact there are not a great deal of books out there about information design at all. I find there are more websites about presenting information than books. It may be that the interactive nature of the web, lends itself better to making us of filtering systems accessing databases and also looking at how animation can enhance the message. It is worth checking out Here there are many examples of how designers have attempted to map out information and decode it in the form of graphic design. These are not always that commercial, but proves a good testing ground for the kind of tihinking that is going on out there.

A question then. Is it about time we looked at Information Design in more depth in our educational curricula and saw the uses of developing solid information designers? If the answer is yes then we need more books, websites and resources from which students and practicing designers can learn, experiment and canvas opinion on. Why not have a go. After writing this I may just do so.

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