information design

Information design is the detailed planning of specific information that is to be provided to a particular audience to meet specific objectives.

Information design is the detailed planning of specific information that is to be provided to a particular audience to meet specific objectives. The information designer may or may not have available (or may create) an information architecture that defines the overall pattern or structure that is imposed on the information design and an information plan that defines information units and how they are to be completed. The output of an information design is sometimes expressed in written instructions, plans, sketches, drawings, or formal specifications. However, on very small projects, information design is likely to be much less formal.

Information design can be distinguished from information architecture and information planning. In one view, there are three hierarchical levels of activity:

 

  1. Information architecture, which is the general set of ideas about how all information in a given context should be organized. For example, one might say that "All of our product information should serve customer needs as expressed by tasks they have to do with our products," and then develop a pattern that organizes all product information in modules related to customer tasks. The output is an information architecture document.
  2. Information planning, which focuses on all aspects required to prepare and support the information of a specific set of products, single product, or event over the product life or other time span. This generally includes understanding the product or event goals, studying the audience and their needs, considering possible information media, defining specific information "units" (books, chapters, Web pages, visualizations, and so forth), specifying the people who will work on them, what the schedule is, and how this work will relate to the work of others. The output is an information plan.
  3. Information design, which focuses more narrowly on the information itself in one or more information units, and may encompass the information aspects of industrial design (labels, knobs, and the physical interface), information content design, page design, Web site design, illustration design, typography decisions, and so forth. Information design can be applied to a single work, such as a city map, or to a corporation's entire set of customer information. The output may be part of an information plan, a separate information design document, or simply the designed object or set of objects.

Information design ideas can often be tested in a usability laboratory by observing surrogate users trying to use the designed information and getting their feedback. The practice of information design invites questions into how people learn or prefer to learn and how they use information. It also raises questions about how to design information for different cultural and other contextual differences in the audience.

Since information is now commonly delivered using electronic media with new possibilities for user interaction and as product designers have become more aware of the importance of usability, a new term, interaction design, has arisen as a corollary of information design. A number of universities now offer courses or degree programs centered on information design.

This was first published in September 2005

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