Information Design

Information Design focuses both theory and practice on the systematic collection, processing (including arrangement), and dissemination of data (disparate bits of related information) using various communication media, messages, and design principles to increase the understanding of those using the particular data set. I created Dr. John's Eazy-Peazy Resource: Information Desgin to provide insight into how to prepare and present information so people can use it efficiently and effectively.


Information Design is the theory and practice of preparing and presenting information so people can use it efficiently and effectively. The overall practice of Information Design involves the following.

  • Choosing relevant content and dividing it into separate "chunks" based on or in relation to specific audience(s) / purpose
  • Organizing these separate information chunks to include overviews, concepts, definitions, examples, and references that follow an organizing principle
  • Developing information topics within each chunk logically, with an emphasis on what is important to message and audience; provide clear navigational structure(s), consistent presentation of information subsets; assure consistent use of typographic features / cues, font face choices, use of white space, etc.

Same term, different fields, slightly different meanings/applications

  • Graphic Design: the effective graphic display/presentation of information with a focus toward effective utilization rather than attractiveness or artistic expression
  • Professional Writing: practice sometimes called "document design"
  • Technical Communication: creating information structures for specific information aimed at specific audiences
  • Web Design: practice often called "information architecture" includes focus on message content and language, user testing and research
  • Computer Science and Information Technology: a rough synonym with "Information Architecture": the design of information systems, databases, or data structures; includes data modeling and process analysis
Disciplinary tracks associated with Information Design
  • Content management
  • Graphic design
  • Information architecture
  • Knowledge visualization
  • Statistics
  • Technical communication
  • Technical illustration
  • Typography
  • Visual literacy
  • Web indexing

Brief History of Information Design

Information Design is a relatively recently recognized field of theory and practice focusing on the systematic collection, processing (including arrangement), and dissemination of data (disparate bits of related information) using various communication media, messages, and design principles to increase the understanding of those using the particular data set.

Information Design can be seen as operating in two different arenas: the more traditional arena of two-dimensional graphics, and the ever-evolving arena of interactive computer-driven multimedia. It has evolved from a number of disciplines, most specifically communications and visual design. Putting a pin in a definitive beginning is, therefore, difficult. But, there are several landmarks we can point to as we outline the evolution of information design as an undertaking to subjectively craft human experience.

Orality / Storytelling / Writing
The roots of information design can be traced back to distant campfires around which prehistoric storytellers related the histories of their tribes. The emphasis on oral storytelling continued with the priests, poets, and playwrights of the ancient world. Many of their efforts to arrange and present the information of human experience, since recorded and preserved in written (cuneiform, hieroglyphics, ancient and modern alphabets) form, are still considered classics in our current world. (For example, The Odyssey, The Greek Tragedies)

1854 Spot Maps by Dr. John Snow

Spot maps prepared by Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) helped pinpoint the source a of cholera epidemic in London. Map showed London neighborhood overlaid with the location of cholera victim homes and location of nearest pumps for getting water. By examining the map Snow could easily see that most of the deaths occurred near a particular pump. Solution: remove the pump handle so that people could no longer get to this the tainted water.

Further resources about Snow and his maps
"John Snow"
UCLA Department of Epidemiology
School of Public Health
A website devoted to the life and work of Dr. John Snow. Provides information about his cholera maps.

"Visual Display of John Snow"
A response by Edward R. Tufte (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983) to Snow's work. Tufte says "graphical analysis testifies about the data far more effectively than calculation."

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (Steven Johnson. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006)
An historical narrative of Snow's map, and how it evolved at the intersection of microscopic bacteria, the tragedy and courage of individual lives, the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, and the sprawling metropolis of London, to make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.

John Snow's Map 1 (1854)
A high resolution image of Snow's original map

High Resolution Maps by John Snow

1861 flow map by Charles Jospeh Minard

Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870) pioneered the use of graphics in engineering and statistics. He is famous for his "Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l'Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813," a flow map published in 1869 depicting Napoleon Bonaparte's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, Minard's map used a thick brown band to show the size of Napoleon's army at each position during the march to Moscow. The path of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, during a bitter winter, is shown by a darker lower band which is tied to temperature and time scales. Edward R. Tufte says of Minard's map "it may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn" (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information 40). Minard's map set the standard for graphically depicting flows of people and goods in space.

Further resources about Minard and his maps
Poster: Napolean's March
Information about Minard's map, including his sources and biography, along with an image at a website maintained by Edward R. Tufte. Buy a copy of Minard's map as a 22" x 15'' poster if you like.

Corbett, John. "Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon's March, 1861." Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science

1930s Otto Neurath's Isotype

Neurath sought to develop a universal, objective, and neutral pictorial language system that transcended linguistic and cultural barriers. His modern graphic designs sought to promote an International Picture Language and, in fact, provides the basis for much of the visual language and international signage we see and use everyday.

Further resources about Otto Neurath's Isotype
Pendle, George. "Otto Neurath's Universal Silhouettes" Cabinet 24 Winter 2006/2007.

Lee, Jae Young. "Otto Neurath's Isotype and the Rhetoric of Neutrality" Visible Language 2008.

1940s Charles and Ray Eames' timeline murals

Charles Eames (1907-1978) and his wife Ray, beginning in 1940 and continuing four decades, were the pioneers of modern information design. They worked in many mediums including puppets, film, and furniture. The Eames chair is still considered the epitome of contemporary, comfortable design. Their most famous contribution to information design was the timeline mural which provided a graphical, linear depiction of some historical or current event with far more information carrying capacity than anything previously produced.

Timelines with their graphic depictions of intersections between space and time are one facet of visual language. Another, and very interesting, facet is comics and graphic novels, with their emphasis on the sequential juxtaposition of text and images, is directly related to the concept of timelines. See Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (HarperPerennial, 1994. ISBN 0-06-097625-X). The subtitle reads, "The invisible art," and McCloud makes it extremely visible. Good discussion of how comics work, with many examples. The entire book is presented as a comic.
More information online at Scott

Further resources about Charles and Ray Eame
Erwin, Daniel. "Eames: Paragon of Simplicity" October 2007
Apparently, a paper written by Erwin for his Intro to Design class.
Available in HTML format here Available in .PDF format here

"Powers of Ten"
A short, interactive film by Charles Eames which visualizes the size of the universe, from space to subatomic particles, through a series of "jumps," each 10 times larger, or smaller, than the previous.

Late 1960s-early 1970s

Designers, psychologists, linguists, and interface engineers begin discussing how to best visualize information. "Information design" evolved as a subset of graphic design; seen as a multidisciplinary endeavor. Edward R. Tufte develops course on statistical graphics; further developed with John Tukey as information design; course materials form basis of Tufte's first book The Visual Display of Qualitative Information (1982)


Role of graphic information design begins to include message content, language, and user testing

Dr. John


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