Graphic Information Design: Information Design

Information design is the practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Information design is a part of graphic design. The term has come to be used specifically for the graphic design of displaying information effectively, rather than just aesthetically. The term ‘information design’ emerged as a multidisciplinary area of study in the 1970s. Document design is another summative description of the field. Information design involving creating structure for sets of information in specialized fields.


It also involves the choosing of relevant content and separating it by audience and purpose. Information design organizes content in overviews, key concepts, examples, lists, contents pages, indexes, glossary’s, category’s, references, and definitions which obviate a structure of topics.


The practice of information design includes logical development of topics, emphasis on what is pivotal, clear writing, navigational guides, page design, appropriate choice of font, and good use of white space.


The term Information Architecture has been used to indicate the design of information systems, databases, or data structures. This includes data modeling and process analysis. Designers need to convey their message in ways that will reach the audience. This is done using words, diagrams, type, and sequencing to layout information so that communication is more effective. Writing for clear communication is the vital hart of information design.


Editing with this thought in mind is done to make messages concise, unambiguous and understandable to the audience. Information design is relevant to a wide range of applications and document genres. Governments and regulatory authorities have legislated about a number of information design issues, such as the minimum size of font in financial small print, the labeling of ingredients in processed food, and the labeling of medicine.


Author and founder of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, Richard Saul Wurman, originated the phrase, “information architect”. His books contributed to bringing the phrase, “information design”, from being a concept to an actualised field of practice.





A Practical Example of an Information Design Issue

Alec Gill, an academic tutor with the Study Advice Service at the University of Hull suggests that academic styles of referencing must be reformed, unified and simplified. One suggestion he makes is that the type of publication is clearly stated e.g. book, journal, film, webpage, etc. Other suggestions he makes are to rid the conventions of italics, underlinings, brackets, bold type, inverted commas and some full stops.


Technological attempts to alleviate the situation with software such as Endnote and RefWorks have been suggested to capitulate with and compound the ever growing ‘Ivory Tower of Babel’ division of language.


The development in academia of fetishes for a chosen style of presentation and referencing has been cited as an inhibiting factor for students due to the conflicting advice they receive from different quarters. There are well over 3000 differently accepted ways of citing source material. This illustrates a major question in the field of information design about why there is not a standardized system or why there is such a fetish for individualism in different realms.


This group of issues was discussed at a symposium at the University of Bradford on referencing and writing. Alec Gill suggests academic styles of referencing are confusing and outdated. He urges a pragmatic approach to declutter the Victoriana that has been inherited within bibliographic styles, and that all people apply critical thinking to their own methodology.



He states that we need to become detached and analytical about what is at the heart of scholarly inquiry; and the way writers refer readers to source material. He suggests that too much research time is wasted on trivial traditions and the reform of academic referencing styles is long overdue.


Departmental guidelines for students and academics on ‘how to reference’ are riddled with inconsistencies. For example those who take a joint degree may have to switch between two different styles such as “Harvard” and footnotes.


The issue of standardization vs freedom of representation is an issue which Samuel Johnson commented on by asking whether language should be proscriptive or prescriptive. One easy to grasp but hard to define perspective holds that language and expression should be underpinned by its utility.  The value of language rests in its descriptive power. Following from this is the understanding that language and information are of one origin, thus the design of information is part of the process of the formation of language.


Constancy and the immutable change of progress should be judged by their own contextual efficiency and utility in successfully communicating the contained information. Psychological inflexibility, compartmentalisation and demarcation of form may obscure the appreciation of information in an unfamiliar manifestation even when it fills the efficiency and utility functional criteria. These types of arbitrary discriminative mental accounts have been looked at by Doctor David L. Rosenhan in the psychological field.


Good structure

The Process of Forming Well Constructed Information

Once conducted, solid research will provide within it patterns and groupings which can be identified and used to construct an abstract expression of it’s system of information. With a sufficient collection of research the information necessary to sketch out ideas is available for experimentation via various graphic means.


Once happy with the emerging ideas – that the patterns used to express the individual nodes of information in context with a larger whole – one can move on to create the actualised design, which once revised, will form the final piece.


This can be in relation to the creation of a thesis, the development of a body of technical information or the production of a menu.  We construct information in terms of architecture because meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of nodes of information as elements.  A good page layout is about more than just applying principles of graphic design or creating cutting edge design. An efficient page layout is one that delivers the intended message to its primary audience.


The page layout must be built around the main message and objective. All the elements of page layout which are used must be appropriate to the message the piece is designed to convey – this includes images, fonts, and colors. Sometimes we are met with trade offs, and the good information architect will be able to understand how to make choices which go with convention or break from it by understanding the collective outcome of the decisions they are weighing up.


Design hierarchy is all about the importance of visual information and assigning levels of importance to make messages within the design get across in mutual context. When starting a project knowing your work process is key to expedient and efficient information design.


Researching, note-taking, prototyping, experimenting, and then finalizing content are some distinct phases which can be a part of the design process. Starting with simple sketches, mind maps, layouts, and refining or elaborating in several rounds of design is an iterative approach which can be recognised in many creative methodologies.



Using the information collected, an outline of the content can be developed and the goal of the project can be broadly delineated in terms of sequential steps. All of the major sections and the content for each can be roughly decided. Once this is finalized, you know what the piece will include and can proceed with the actualisation of the information.


Textbooks are designed to present formalized subjects such as geography, science, and mathematics. These publications have layouts which aim to illustrate theories and ideas which underpin the specialised bodies of knowledge. The presentation of opinion and facts is improved with graphics and thoughtful composition of information.


Human anatomy and physiology
Human anatomy and physiology

A good example of graphic forms used to educate is diagrams of human anatomy and their accompanying narratives.


Illustration is a common element used in graphic design projects. An illustration often lends to the explanation of content just as well as a photograph.


Illustration may be used as an aesthetic device to draw and hold attention to the whole or to “illustrate” a point, such as in graphs, charts, maps or in icons.

Some common instruments of Information design are:

  • Overviews
  • Key concepts
  • Examples
  • List
  • Contents pages
  • Index
  • Glossary
  • Categories
  • References
  • Definitions

In the process of conveying or learning any information, the whole is broken up into obvious parts according to the evident structure and what apparent modules the complete is made up of. It is this process of categorisation which the information designer must clearly demonstrate with use of the graphic design tools. Categories constitute the essential way in which the document subdivides and treats of the whole subject by managing the information in apparently innate bundles.


The process of dividing a subject into categories is one in which the information designer must intuit in what way the subject as a whole is most easily understood and conveyed without disenfranchising the meaning.


Contents pages provide the main navigational tool of a document to the reader. The contents page represents a means of identifying the central themes of the work, the order in which they are broached, and the location of these narratives in the volume.


The contents page of a document details the main structure of the contained work and will be the first order of call for the locating of a special subsection of the work. Lists are useful literary devices which can convey groups of related ideas, articles or concepts without necessarily detailing their content.


Lists can quickly facilitate a broad contextualization without drifting off-point. They can be used to familiarize the reader with relative information in a brief and extremely concise way.


Examples are often important in a document to provide a specific application of a discussed principle. Examples can help to break down the esoteric nature of specialized information fields by providing a sort of allegorical framework. Examples work by iteration of the same underlying concept but changing the variables to which the concept applies.


Highlighting key concepts makes prominent the pivotal elements around which other information is organized and gains its context. The provision of an overview detailing the overall subject in a summary way can facilitate the document as a whole. This will prime the audience with rough outlines of what they can expect, what the subject entails and also it can provide a broad idea of the interrelationships of subtopics. The detailing of key concepts in a document can be a vital way of highlighting the most important pieces of information which are required to understand the subject as a whole.


Definitions are pivotal in providing a document; they make concrete the way in which a word, phrase or expression is being used in an effort to reduce ambiguity. Definitions provide an operationalism to the knowledge portrayed by which the work is clarifying itself in concise terms as it goes. This is a traditional practice in terms of philosophy and a practice also brought into the scientific fields and used in many others.


In terms of information design, providing definitions is a key practice in moving away from esoteric, abstract, jargonistic, acronym ridden documents.


This facilitation of concise understanding through articulation of the use of language allows the reader both to see the original phrasing and context of the depicted information.  It is also a way of providing the audience with a reading list with which they can deepen their knowledge of the subject.


References provide links to sources from which the information is taken, links to resources in wider contexts and archives, and connections to related topics as well as indirectly relevant information. Traditionally references in the form of footnotes and bibliographies have provided the essential underpinning of scholarly texts demonstrating the provenance of the information used to illustrate a point, axiom or principle.


A glossary is a useful supplement to a document providing an in-built dictionary of terms which the main text has used. In the absence of a glossary, the text should ideally make clear and explain each of the special terms it makes use of. Without one or another, the text becomes an exclusive enterprise and loses utility to obscurity and jargon.




The index of a work provides a detailed and articulate version of a contents page, and ultimately of the knowledge contained within the volume.  It can be considered a kind of information cartography, and navigational tool to aid the reader. As a literary device it is a most useful compass of technical literature allowing the reader to locate, in very specific terms, the information that they want to find.


The making of an index is a distinct and refined art form. As of yet, software has not been devised to create an index of a piece of work which is sufficient to make one of any reliable quality. This said, in the spirit of utility, an amateur index of less sophistication than the artisans of this complex trade can produce, far outweighs the omission of an index in it’s entirety. Index making has long been an important art form exemplary in technical documents and also related to the dictionary, encyclopedia, chronology and concordance.


A less sophisticated but accurate index, in this author’s opinion, is of greater value than none at all; hence forgivable against it’s own simplicity should it be concise. There is software available now which is sufficient to facilitate the composition of an amateur index without a significant learning curve. Whilst the craft of the creation of indices is a complex one, the elements are very worth grappling with should an author want a book to be more greatly engaged with.


The index represents possibly the most valuable asset of information architecture/design in terms of making a text a dynamic facility to inform the readers interest and inquiries.

by Alex Dunedin