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"Finding the way through
  information design"

Interview for Art Institute's InSite magazine article

Mind Hacks bookPublished August 4th, 2010

William Bardel is Principal of Luminant Design, an information design practice in New York. The following is the full text of the interview that took place in July 2010.


InSite: How would you define information design? 

Bardel: Information design is an area of design practice that deals with complexity; making complex information and ideas accessible and understandable in print, online, and even physical space. Its most common applications include news infographics (maps, charts diagrams), annual reports, data visualizations and other products where complex content requires the tools of design to make it clear. Information designers also are involved in wayfinding design; the design of complex navigational signage systems for spaces such as buildings, highways, cities and airports.

InSite: What does information design involve? 

Bardel: As a practice, information design involves two steps: 1. Study content to find its hidden structure, meaning and significance, and 2.)  Present these findings in an accessible manner through improved structure and visual aesthetics. This is perhaps why information designers love their work. It involves the challenge of learning something new every day and sharing it with others.

InSite: What would you say are the common anxieties designers have when it comes to information design? 

Bardel: Understanding itself is a primary source of anxiety. For an information designer, it is not enough to just stylize what is handed to you. In order to produce something you know people will be able to read and understand, you have to truly grasp not only the information involved, but everything relative to it, including the audience and their physical and cognitive abilities/limitations, the client’s objectives and strategy, how the delivery will affect access, etc. Sometimes this isn’t easy, depending on your client, audience, content, and means for delivery.

InSite: Why does it seem to be a bigger focus on information design now? Does it have anything to do with the Web and greater accessibility to data now? 

Bardel: The good news is the world is full of confusing, badly designed information, so there is plenty of work for information designers. The bad news is that information seems to increase in complexity every day, while the average attention span continues to shrink. The Web is a direct, primary cause of this situation.

InSite: Do you think the role of the graphic designer has changed because of the focus on information design?

Bardel: Information design has been around for a while, if you look at the works of William Playfair, Charles Minard, and Jacques Bertin. Certainly as a practice it has received more recent attention thanks to the pressing need for better information design created by the Web, and because of people like Richard Saul Wurman, Edward Tufte and Nigel Holmes. What has changed is the nature of the practice of information design. Thanks to recent human factors research into cognition and psychology by scientists, there is more understanding of how people see and process visual stimuli. Designers are starting to look outside of their practice to take this research and apply in ways to improve their work. This is a change for graphic designers, and currently a leading edge in information design.

InSite: What would you suggest someone study if they want to become an information designer?

Bardel: Information design is a good field for you if you have patience with an appetite for problem solving and complex puzzles. Start off with a solid foundation of basic graphic design. Add some coursework in English so you have the ability to write and edit text. Finally study the fields of visual perception psychology and cognition. The rest is either dependent on field (take web classes if you want to do information design for web) or best learned in practice by finding a design studio that exposes you to a wide range of projects. Smaller studios tend to be better learning environments.