Information Design: Not For Sale

Many people have responded to Amy Balliett ‘s article on The Do’s And Don’ts Of Infographic Design, including Nathan Yau’s rebuttal. You will find many comments about why her points don’t make much sense, and why we all believe she needs to learn more about information design basics (I mean, do you understand the chart above, which she uses as an example of good infographics?). Rather than continue on specifics about the actual infographics, I’d like to elaborate on the deep personal disappointment I felt when I read Balliet’s Do’s and Don’ts.

When I departed the working world to attend graduate school, I did so seeking something that brought more meaning to my work than commercial graphic design and communication could offer (I will add marketing and advertising to this category). It was a long and confusing journey that ultimately changed my life: in discussing my graduate thesis with my professor, Ramone Muñoz, I learned of Richard Wurman’s writing and work. I had found information design.

The specific article I read many years ago from Richard Wurman was a Design Journal publication called “Hats.” I devoured it. I had finally found what I had been looking for: substance, essence, a search for the truth, a focus on people. In short, information design was a logical side to design that helped people in their everyday lives, and in their everyday search for understanding. I found my ‘home’.

So when I read Amy Balliett ‘s article after many years of living and breathing information design, I was filled with sadness. At a time when information design in its varied forms is more commonplace than ever and is being recognized as an important aspect of  changemaking, she has taken a huge step backwards and stripped out everything good about information design thinking, replacing it instead with marketing fluff — pure visual appeal, distortion of content, and flat-out disregard for people in favor of profit. She recasts information design as all the things I was running from (Sell, Sell, Sell), in a public forum for all to hear — and worse yet — to replicate.

Information design principles should not be rewritten by relative newcomers who show no awareness or appreciation of the field’s long history. Let’s remember and learn from the true legacy of some of the great information design pioneers:

Otto Neurath, who developed Isotype as a universal language that would unite people and bring literacy to the illiterate

Jacques Bertin, who created graphical frameworks to improve understanding and visualizations of statistics

Richard Wurman, whose passion to make information easily understandable spurred a generation of “information architects”

Edward Tufte, whose valuable lessons from history demonstrate the art and science of making clear thinking visible

These people were out to help change the world, not sell another box of cornflakes or drive traffic to websites!

Thank you to the editors of Smashing Magazine for making the rebuttal possible. It is encouraging to see Nathan Yau advocate the real best practices of information design and data visualization: focus on content and tell a clear story that will engage readers. However, there are many more voices and insights yet unrecognized in this conversation. Information design contains many practicing professionals with deep knowledge.

Let’s elevate the conversation, please.

Comments ( 3 )
  • arvind says:

    for the rest of the readers, the Hats article in question is:

    Hats. Richard Saul Wurman. Design Quarterly No. 145, Hats (1989), pp. 1-32

  • Tamasin Cole says:

    Thank you for putting this so eloquently. I have been fuming since I read the piece – it is indeed very depressing.
    One of the major problems information (and other graphic) designers face right now is de-professionalisation. So often our skills in re-organising, re-writing, re-thinking and re-presenting messages so that they are really effective are seen as ‘making it pretty’, failing to understand that it takes skill, experience and knowledge to do what we do well.
    Presenting misleading representations of facts is wrong, and does our profession no good at all.

  • Martin says:

    Thank you for your honest insight Elizabeth. I wasn’t sad, I was angry when I read Balliett’s article. And even more when I read some of the comments there.

    The bad news is that although the “dataviz is the current cool” earthquake has already happened somewhere in the oceans of graphic design, the shit infographic tsunami has not entirely struck yet. And it will. Taking just from Amy Ballietts own claim, she and her team completed over 750 infographics. That means they already managed to convince their clients more than 750 times, that their work is the “top-of-the-line” (as they claim at their FB page). You know where this is heading…

    I totally agree with Tamasin Cole’s above comment. But reading your or Nathan’s responses puts my smile back. There needs to be strong and clear reflection – to prevent as much damage the tsunami will cause as possible.

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