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Book Review: Information Design

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – September 17, 2003

This review takes a personal look at the book Information Design edited by Robert Jacobson.



Cover of Information Design     

Jacobson, Robert (Ed.)
Information Design
MIT Press, 2000
ISBN: 0262600358

Design: Information design



Robert (Bob) Jacobson heads Bluefire Consulting, a San Mateo-based consultancy for, among others, holistic technology assessment; he can be reached at Until recently, Jacobson was a senior consultant at SRI Consulting's Business Intelligence Center, in Menlo Park, CA. Prior to joining SRI-C he ran his own company, a virtual-worlds-applications startup, Worldesign Inc., in Seattle. Worldesign was a a spinoff from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory, or HIT Lab, which Jacobson cofounded and staffed as associate director, at the Washington Technology Center located on the campus of the University of Washington. (From book cover and Web sources)



I picked up the book Information Design edited by Robert Jacobson at a CHI 2003 bookstand and without a moment's hesitation bought it, assuming that this book would cover the design of large, information-rich Websites, a discipline that is also called "information architecture." Perhaps, I pondered, it would include some information on text design, such as the design of technical documentation, and on graphic design, such as icons. But I did not expect that my personal "domain," user interface design, would also be within the scope of this discipline. To broaden my understanding of software design, I had already bought the book Bringing Design to Software at the CHI 2003.

When reading the introduction to the book, however, I soon found out that the new discipline "information design" – actually the newest of the design disciplines, as the book cover says – regards itself as an all-embracing discipline: The editor and most contributors to this book see information design as an umbrella discipline for such diverse disciplines as technical writing, iconic languages, graphic design, scientific visualization, 3D graphics, user interface design, interaction design, design of educational materials, and many more. However, as this is a new discipline, there is no coherent and agreed-on view of what the "look and feel" of this emerging discipline is or should be – the viewpoints vary much more than the viewpoints on, for example, software design. This diversity is reflected in the selection and the viewpoints and approaches of the contributors. According to the editor Robert Jacobson, a coherent view is not the goal of the book. He concludes his introduction with: "After all, it is your (the readers') understanding of information design that we (the contributors) have worked hard to enlarge." Did they succeed? I will try to answer this question in my conclusion.


Richard Saul Wurman, who pioneered information design, wrote the foreword to the book; it is followed by an introduction to the field by the editor Robert Jacobson. The main part of the book comprises 14 essays from notable authors who present a broad range of approaches to and viewpoints on the discipline of information design. The essays are divided into the three sections "Theoretical Foundations of Information Design,""The Practice of Information Design," and "Designing for the Technologies of Information," which present more theory-oriented, practical-oriented, and finally technology-oriented approaches. The spectrum of topics and practical applications is wide, and the style of the essays varies considerably. This may confuse some readers who expect a more uniform and tangible answer to the question of what constitutes the discipline of information design but it also reflects the diversity of the field. The book concludes with a critical epilogue from Jef Raskin, to which I will return in the discussion below.


To bring some order to the diversity, Robert Jacobson's introduction and the foundational article by Robert E. Horn provide background information on the new discipline of information design. Most other articles reflect Horn's statement that "information design is not yet a fully integrated profession", as well as what Horn describes as a "failure to fully integrate research." He continues:

"It is symptomatic of a recently self-conscious profession that its knowledge of itself, its practices, and its research foundations are only partially known to practitioners. Many information designers have not read much of the research relevant to the profession."

Horn also refers to the tensions within this new profession, resulting from "a clash of different ideologies or value positions." As an example he cites the tension between graphic designers and technical communication people, the first "worshiping the gods of style and fashion, novelty, impact, and self-expression," the latter "worshipping the gods of clarity, precision, legibility, comprehension, and (often) simplicity." This is probably an outcome of his own experiences as creator of the structured-writing methodology with book illustrators. (I could add a similar tension between graphic designers and usability people.)

Let me skip the essays – here, readers will probably find their favorites as well as their "dislikes" – and move on to the epilogue. Actually, there is no real need to write a review of the book because it already contains one, namely the epilogue written by Jef Raskin. Somewhat unusual for such an essay collection, Raskin at times harshly criticizes his fellow-contributors and blames at least some of them for using an unclear vocabulary:

"I was embarrassed to see a few of the authors in this book abusing terms such as information, digital, and binary, seemingly unaware of their precise meanings and implications. If our field is to advance, we must, without displacing creativity and aesthetics, make sure our terminology is clear."

This is in agreement with the above-mentioned statement by Robert E. Horn that many information designers have not read much about the research in the field. To Raskin, the title of the book "Information Design" is a misnomer – he would have named it "Designing Information Representation." In his opinion, information cannot be designed – only the way we represent it in order to communicate meaning can be designed. All in all, Raskin's epilogue is biased, too, namely in favor of ergonomics and cognitive science. Despite the fact that he is both, a scientist/engineer and an artist and that he concludes that both art and science are necessary for designing the presentation of information, he predicts that "the most valuable improvements in the effectiveness of representations of information will come from scientific analyses of human performance." (And quickly adds that he does not imply any abandonment of art and the artistic impulse.) I doubt that each of the contributors would agree to that conclusion.


In his introduction, Robert Jacobson calls the book a "designed medium" and asks "Did we, professional information designers and students of information design, succeed in our purpose?" The purpose was, as cited above, to enlarge the understanding of information design. I can only answer this question for myself. Yes, the book succeeded in broadening my understanding of the discipline. But I found it, at least in part, hard to read and not well designed, considering that the elite of information design – with respect to text and graphics – created this book. Why did many contributors not apply at least a few of Horn's principles of structured-writing and provide better illustrations? Or was clarity not among their goals (or "gods")?

Despite its shortcomings, I recommend this book to everyone working in the various fields that information design claims to be the "mother discipline" of. People should be aware of the fact that there is a discipline with such a claim and acquire an understanding of its research agenda.


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