Information design: who is responsible when it fails?

npgraphicdesign's picture

That was the roughly (not verbatim) the topic of my thesis. I wanted to explore the connection between the information designer and the audience, how the information is presented by the designer, how it is perceived by the audience, and who is responsible when the information is misunderstood. That was the written part. For the visual part, I selected a college campus (my old undergraduate university) and redesigned their map and wayfinding/signage system.

I decided to pick it up last night and reread it, almost 2 years later. Afterwards, I began to realize that despite my thesis committee kicking my butt with a plethora of revisions and pushing me to make this a great finishing stroke on my graduate school career, I only scratched the surface and maybe went a bit under. What I want to do is revisit my written part of the project in more depth as well as my visual part of the project. For my resources (and like a complete dolt I left my thesis at home and now I'm in a coffee shop doing a bit of research) I used Tufte, Ferdinand De Sassure, DAvid Crow, Saul Wurner, Nathan Shedroff, Josef Albers, multiple essays on information design from various authors in the last 200 years or so, explored semiotics, cognitive thinking, etc. There are a few others that I'm simply forgetting to mention.

Any suggestions on additional resources that I could use to expand on my thesis?

Si_Daniels's picture

I wonder if the information design used in planning the Iraq War is available to researchers? Not thinking about aircraft carrier banners or UN PowerPoints, but the information design used in planning the war. It would be interesting if blame could be assigned to designers rather than the generals.

blank's picture

I wonder if the information design used in planning the Iraq War is available to researchers?

Mapping aside, I doubt that much information design was done. Given the agencies involved, it’s likely that everything was just dumped into basic Word templates and/or Excel Spreadsheets. And given the statements made by the people who planned this Iraq war during the first Iraq war, it seems like they understood the information really well.

nora g's picture

There is a very interesting book about visual perception, but you've to know read french or german: »La loi et ses conséquences visuelles« – „Das Gesetz und seine visuellen Folgen” (... The law and it's visual consequences or effects)
It has been a project of research of the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig (Germany) and Zuerich University of Arts (Swizerland), directed by Ruedi Baur. Published by Lars Mueller.équences-visuelles/dp/3037780436/ref=sr_11_1/002-2429251-4749649?ie=UTF8&qid=1194020760&sr=11-1

npgraphicdesign's picture

any idea if a copy of this book exists in english? My german stops at wundabar!, and my french is not much better...

nora g's picture

As far as I know, there is no copy in english language. You can get in contact to Ruedi Baur at the Institute of Research and Development in Zuerich, to ask him about maybe existing translations or further information in english language, i know he's doing a lot of lectures, maybe there are some in english:

ChuckGroth's picture

and there's always the old stand-by book by Nigel Holmes on informational graphics. as a personal opinion, i'd have to weigh in on the designer falling short if information isn't understood. it's our job to make SURE it's clear, and communicative, after all.

William Berkson's picture

Simon, there was plenty of information and expertise in the military and State Department, all of it dismissed with contempt by Rumsfeld, who thought he knew so much better he didn't need to consult anyone. And our clueless President went along, as he is so impressed by arrogance. Unfortunately Rumsfeld's ideas were incredibly stupid, and the consequences of the resulting terrible decisions were devastating for Iraq, the US, and the world. This is all brilliantly documented in No End in Sight, which has just come out out on DVD.

The disaster of information design that led to all of it was the infamous butterfly ballot of Florida in 2000, which tilted the results against Gore enough for the deadlock, and the Supreme Court giving it to Bush.

Si_Daniels's picture

I was thinking of the butterfly ballot too - wasn't really trying to make a political point, just that graphic designers and information designers are often blamed less (quite rightly in my opinion) than the people who hire them when things go wrong.

Another case being the recent baby crib recalls where in some cases bad instructions contributed to the problem. Easier to blame “the Chinese” rather than “Bob” who messed up the manual.

Anyway I'll check out the movie.

William Berkson's picture

>the people who hire them when things go wrong

I think the moral of the story here is somewhat different.

According to this report the ballot was not designed by a professional graphic designer or information designer, but by the election official. And she had already done the same mess-up four years earlier according to this account, though the errors were not consequential in that case.

So the story is that an official thought information design is so obvious or unimportant that there was no need to hire a designer, even after a mess up.

What the story shows, I think, is that much of the public doesn't understand or value graphic design or information design--but in fact good and bad design can change the fate of nations, and has.

Nick Shinn's picture

The leaflets dropped immediately before the Iraq invasion were very successful in getting the Iraqi soldiers to go home and not fight. Their designer(s) were in the military (PSY-OPS), and working "in the field".

akma's picture

To return to the question at hand: someone has finally broached a topic (semiotics) on which I can speak with a degree of confidence.

A lot depends on the model of communication one begins with. If you suppose that "meaning" is something that a writer/designer puts into their work, then when the communication fails, the writer/designer can (and often does) blame readers for the lapse. That's the predominant approach in the circles with which I'm acquainted; it provides fuel for many of the furies in humanities departments, and it undergirds many conflicts over interpretation in more casual settings.

You might also think of "meaning" as the stakes of a venture, a wager, whereby the writer/designer proffers a certain expression (in words and images). If careful composition, astute knowledge of the audience, and general luck favor the writer/designer, the communication succeeds. If the writer/designer hasn't done their homework, or if some unforeseeable circumstance confuses the audience, the communication fails. This model doesn't depend on the myth of subsistent meaning (the notion that "meaning" soehow inhabits words and images apart from somebody actively apprehending meaning), and keeps the onus for success on the communicator -- though even the most careful articulate, precise communicator sometimes doesn't succeed.

(Singluar "they" deliberate; kindly leash the dogs of grammar enforcement.)

oldnick's picture

A seminal work you may also want to consider is The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. A point they make is that communication through language (or symbols) is a triangular operation, involving a referrer, a referrent and a referee: that is, someone is thinking of something and wishes to convey that thought to someone else. With language, metaphor (or simile) is the tool most often used to perform this process, and I would venture to say that "Information Design" depends to a large extent on visual metaphors. How successful either process is depends largely on the strength--that is, lack of ambiguity--of the metaphor.

Gus Winterbottom's picture

> Mapping aside, I doubt that much information design was done. Given the agencies involved, it’s likely that everything was just dumped into basic Word templates and/or Excel Spreadsheets.

The US military, at the DOD and service levels, and the NATO PfP have simulation, training, and mission planning systems and networks that cover everything from logistics to theater strategy to tactical strike packages. The capabilities of those systems, and the warrooms and simulators to which they’re linked, are way beyond the state of the civilian art, even if they may not do 3D textures quite like Pixar. Moving on, though:

Info Design.

The Aethestics and Computation Group at MIT (check out the various theses and project info linked to on the People page).

The Information design/Information architecture SIG of the STC.

Information Design in the Age of the Semantic Web (pdf).

Aaron Marcus.

David Galipeau.

Saul Carliner.

Information visualization resources (may be too computer oriented):

The SAGE Visualization Group.

IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis). Not to be confused with Infovis at the University of Utah.


Finally, some R&D projects from the much-maligned military that I think could be considered information design, even if they’re not politically correct:

A DARPA RFP on the subject of information design. Also, go to this website and check out topics SB072-011, 012, 013, 015, 016, 023, 030, and 033.

Work being done by Design Interactive.

aluminum's picture

Tufte in his presentations points out that the original Space Shuttle Explosion was likely caused by bad information design. When NASA can't do that right, I really doubt the Military is focusing on it to any great extent.

Gus Winterbottom's picture

Allegedly, Frank Gehry, according to this NYT article:

M.I.T. Sues Frank Gehry, Citing Flaws in Center He Designed

"We asked Frank to give us a building that fostered communication, and he delivered.”

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