Information in the Information Age

by June 5, 2004

Through redesigns like Edward Tufte’s Challenger presentation and Greg Storey’s presidential memo, information design is being applied to domains that don’t practice it. But why not? We are living in the information age with an over-abundance of information everywhere we turn. This means that being able to organize and present information is an increasingly necessary skill.

I first got introduced to “real” information design in a graduate class at the University of Illinois. The instructor, Colleen Bushell, had worked with Edward Tufte on the storm visualization redesign that grazes the cover of Visual Explanations. Needless to say, we read Tufte and designed timelines, tutorials, maps, and more. It’s an experience everyone dealing with information should have and today everyone deals with information. As a result, undergraduate classes in information architecture (organization & labeling), information design (layout and hierarchy), and information presentation (communication) need to move to the required courses list.

Though some of Tufte’s recent tirades about PowerPoint have been criticized, I think the larger point he is making is important: we need to educate people on how to manage information. PowerPoint makes it seem too easy; it trivializes the importance of information design. The majority of PowerPoint decks I’ve compiled (and there’s been many) have had a complimentary presentation format that was crucial to communicating effectively but did not fit in PowerPoint’s flat information-level, bullet-point style. These formats often take the form of a “big chart” and always work on both macro and micro information levels. A quick glance gives you some general insights and zooming or filtering brings up details as you need them. Instead of determining business strategy from condensed set of information chunks, a team can huddle around a big chart and plan.