It took a while before many of us began to realize that the internet was not just this shiny, free gateway to an egalitarian society in which everyone – regardless of nationality, level of education, social position or income – would have almost unlimited access to an unlimited treasure trove of information. A mid-nineties conference on design and digital media such as Doors of Perception still celebrated this new world of shared knowledge, bottom-up democracy, collective intelligence, digital mobility, and the new age of play with an undiluted spirit of optimism. “Home is where the laptop is,” was the leading slogan of the conference’s first edition, where a nomadic tribe of digital information pioneers advocated an approach to design that would be fundamentally different from all established practices of industrial designers, graphic designers, architects, fashion designers, and even craftsmen.
From then on, most predictions about the profound changes digital technology would bring, even the ones that sounded like lunatic fantasies at the time, have materialized one way or another. The Web 1.0 and 2.0 definitely changed the way we produce and distribute information, they are supporting unique forms of collaboration and self-organisation, and they did help establish new practices of research and development which have resulted in a stream of new services, products, and systems. In all kinds of domains – from journalism and biology to cartography and the production of weapons – digital technologies actually provided specialist tools to huge groups of non-specialist users. These democratized tools did indeed change balance of power between producers and consumers, professionals and amateurs, and thereby the very nature of the design profession and its outcomes. But those were not the only effects.
When the first edition of Doors of Perception was staged, no one had ever heard of companies such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram. Sure enough, it was clear that large IT-firms would be important drivers of the technological revolution. But a sense of romance around maverick innovation – a few bright guys in a suburban garage – still defined the preferred scope around the cultural and social impact of these new technologies. Now that small collectives could easily organize themselves to become influential forces in society, why not speculate on a similarly decentralized economic model? Information technology could be used to deliver low-cost solutions for local problems on a global scale. Software was not primarily perceived as a product, but first of all a service; a tool to enhance participation and fairness instead of competition.
A few decades onwards, the soft(ware) revolution has proven its capacity to create public access to a superabundance of information, but the business model of the major information providers is based on mining data from those who access the information. Digital media, and especially social media have opened up the democratic process, just like they provide a platform for groups and individuals who act as fact finders (Bellingcat) or undercover civilian reporters (Syria). However, simple technologies such as electronic voting are vulnerable to manipulation, social media accounts are easily hacked or faked, and online reporting is sometimes barely distinguishable from trolling. The complex reality of today’s information society is defined both by abundance and ambiguity: it’s never either/or but often both/and: the sum of loads of contrasting data on which we need to build our understanding of the world.
What does this imply for the design of information? And how do these consequences translate into the current curriculum of the Information Design Master Department at Design Academy Eindhoven? To mark the territory, it is important to note that information design builds largely on the tools and formats that defined graphic design, a field in which the designer – commissioned by a client – provides a truthful and engaging, often printed representation of the contents of a project for a designated audience. In comparison, information designers are forced to deal with a less straightforward task in a less straightforward information environment. Technological innovations not only introduced new tools and modes of work, they also caused a fundamental shift in the roles of authors, publishers, designers and users. Designers could become publishers. Some defined themselves as authors or researchers. Publishers developed business models in which they act either as editors or as retailers of ‘packaged’ graphic products. Perhaps the users present the most influential challenge to the natural chain of command: their ability to act as publishers, critics, and designers, aided by dedicated media platforms and easily accessible software, necessarily alters the roles of all other ‘professionals’ in the process, including the designer of information.
What defines the design professional when the differences between user and designer tend to disappear? Perhaps the answer lies in the title of a recent lecture series at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture: ‘Learning by thinking about the making’. This sentence quite accurately defines what distinguishes the designer form the user. Both are makers, but the essence lies in learning and thinking. Contemplating the act of making and its consequences might not be the first thing a user would do; for any designer it is a core activity. And learning implies a process of repetition and gradual progress: becoming better at making and thinking through experience. For a Master course like ours, where students are not expected to acquire totally new skills but instead reflect on their creations and the profession in general, these are crucial notions.
The field of operations has certainly widened over the last decades, causing graphic design to lose its singularity along the way. Still, the editors of a recently published, self-proclaimed ‘bible’ of the information design discipline, present a fairly unequivocal definition. Information design, they state, “makes complex information clear with the need of users in mind.” Within our department we have chosen not to put such a tight definition on our subject area. Instead we approach the range of contexts in which information design can operate and the variety of forms it can take within the students’ projects as a definition in the making.
This deliberate decision not construct a preconceived straitjacket denotes the explorative, non-scientific nature of the course. Working with a group of students and tutors who represent different genders, generations, (sub)cultures, educational backgrounds, visual and linguistic literacies, and technological skills it makes sense to address diversity as an important aspect of today’s information society. In our case “keeping the need of the users in mind” is definitely an issue but answering the question what need(s) can be addressed through design, how and how much a designer can know about these needs, and for which specific user(s) the project aims to work, is far from straightforward. “Making complex information clear” could be an equally tricky concept when we consider that clarity is never an absolute notion. What’s clear in one given context, might be totally confusing in another. A piece of cake for you could well be a mystery to me.
The current student population in the Information Design department can be characterized as “digital natives”. They are at ease with technology and they understand how the design of tools conditions the work of a designer. For many of them the real urgency lies in the growing complexity of today’s society. They feel surrounded by complexity in all kinds of contexts: from complexity in numbers (how do you deal with vast amounts of information?) to the complex nature of abstract scientific information or of news reporting (accessibility, reliability and actuality), to political forms of complexity (issues around race, gender, democracy or privacy). The course hopes to nurture a critical awareness around all these types of complexity, next to a general understanding of how power, ownership and economic structures influence our fields of work.
Together with the students we are trying to figure out what the role of design in such complex information environments can be. We try not to position students as agents of change – which is sometimes seen as the central aim of design education – but rather choose to use design as a tool to visually define and present the challenges of the future society. The graphic representation of data by just grouping them together can never be the answer. They will only make sense to a chosen audience when they are turned into visual information.
Laurent Binet, the French author who rose to fame with his 2010 novel HHhH (short for Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich/Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) mentions how an unedited set of data fails to tell a story. “No reader will remember this list of names,” Binet argues, “why would he? For anything to penetrate into memory, it must first be transformed into literature.” As in Binet’s recapturing of the story around the assassination of high-ranking Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, where historical events needed to be understood, boiled down to their essence, and then reshaped to suit the format of novel, any information design project of some importance should do exactly this: interpret, synthesize, and transform. Which is not an easy thing to do, as Laurent Binet acknowledges when he contemplates the outcomes of his historical research in the context of constructing the novel. He bemoans:
“I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect – and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it – ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy – the unmappable pattern of causality.”
Interpret, Synthesize, Transform
HHhH presents both a literary evocation of history and a log of a writing process. The book shows how fragments of information are used to construct the story and how language colors the observations. Binet weaves “the making of” into his fictional storytelling. Although this technique annoyed several of his critics, many readers appreciated the method as an effective way to involve them in the process of imagining the real. In essence, these two parallel processes can also be traced in the most profound information design projects, and their importance is reflected in the Information Design curriculum. Ideally student projects show the ‘how’ next to the ‘what’ and thus reveal the interpretation given by the designer to the original data sets and the tools used to visualize this specific reading of the material.
In her 2014 book Graphesis visual theorist Johanna Drucker describes information visualizations such as maps as “intellectual Trojan horses”. They may appear to be independent of the observer but they are in fact interpretations masquerading as representations. The collection of data itself already reflects an underlying mental framework. And as soon as these data are visually represented, the personal interpretation of the designer we have learned to value in traditional graphic formats such as posters or book covers suddenly seems to disappear. As if data visualizations could simply adopt a rhetoric of neutrality. According to Drucker we need to accept the fundamentally constructed nature of data and acknowledge that phenomena such as nations, genders, populations and time spans are not self-evident, stable entities. Following this critical approach Drucker calls for ambiguity and uncertainty to be incorporated into the design of information, either by being represented or by forming the basis upon which a representation is made.
Drucker stresses the need for a map with a more nuanced legend or for a nonstandard map that shows its constructed nature. Her first call can certainly be answered: legends can certainly be designed to express delicate distinctions. Less clear is how her demand for incorporated ambiguity should be met. How can an atypical map (or any other data visualization) incorporate the qualities of being open to more than one interpretation? And what formats can be designed to show that the position of the designer in a certain matter is unresolved?
The fact that there are no easy answers to these last questions doesn’t disqualify Johanna Drucker’s argument. Within the Information Design department at Design Academy Eindhoven tutors and students collectively challenge the boundaries of the discipline with the aim of finding new formats. These radically new formats should be able to answer the urgencies of today and tomorrow, instead of slightly adjusting existing models to new circumstances. Demands about the representation of ambiguity force us even more to find appropriate methods to present interpretations as interpretations; in other words, to show that a given approach is based on a choice to highlight certain aspects and ignore others for the sake of rhetorical clarity. Future formats need to create space for the user to question them by becoming more transparent or interactive.
For a while, the so-called Open Design movement projected its hopes on the contributions of non-specialists. Because digital design tools and publication platforms were readily available, the amateur could become the added innovator, next to a professional design community. A quick scan of the results in the field of map making doesn’t do much to substantiate this expectation. Originally a particularly restricted format, the map was highly affected by the democratization of tools to record and edit geographic data. Smartphones with GPS technology and open-source software to create and distribute information have attracted a growing community of amateur mapmakers. As this group expanded rapidly, the number of maps being produced exploded. Pinterest boards full of cartographic explorations testify to this development. The makers are clearly fascinated by complexity but most of them fail to synthesize and transform their material into an image that speaks to the user. Many of the results are not attuned to cartographic traditions. Often out of ignorance of what the conventions are, the result is illegible cartographic sludge or self-indulgent data pornography. Few examples produced by these new players actually question the format or force us to rethink the assumptions that underpin it, let alone make the map’s user aware of being manipulated.
What is true for the map, seems equally plausible for other established formats. Invention based on ignorance will not pay off. Today’s community of information designers faces the task to gain an understanding of the user’s needs and simultaneously create appropriate new formats that can satisfy these needs. Not simply because “the new” is the embedded trademark of all design efforts. First and foremost, it is a consequence of the changing modes in which we produce, collect, disclose, distribute, and process the exponentially growing amount of information that has become the cornerstone for several of the world’s most prosperous companies. Information sells – that is obvious – but how can information be designed in such a way that it isn’t just the shareholders of these large corporations who reap the benefits? And how can design be aligned with a world in which the categorical either/or options have made way for a much more ambiguous understanding of reality?
A recent exhibition at the Fondation Cartier showed the work of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. ‘Freeing Architecture’ was introduced with a text written by the architect himself. It hardly takes any editing – simply replacing the word architecture by information design – to express the framework from which the Information Design department at Design Academy Eindhoven has departed in 2011, and to which it still subscribes today. Junya Ishigami wrote:
“I wish to think about architecture freely; to expand my perspective on architecture as flexibly, broadly, and subtly as possible, beyond the stereotypes of what architecture is considered to be. The society that we live in is gradually changing, accepting an array of values more diverse than ever before. It is becoming increasingly difficult for preconceived building types and/or functions (graphic formats and typologies) to respond to our current circumstances.”
Those current circumstances, Ishigami argues, force us to set the generalities of the discipline aside and forget all preconceived concepts. It is necessary to “consider and confront” its roles and needs in our current society. To question who it serves and how users can be granted access to the design process. In the case of designed information for instance by showing and questioning the provenance of data. Their (in)completeness. By demonstrating that the final representation selected by the designer is just one of many possible options. Considerations like these have shaped the Information Design curriculum. If it is our mission to free information like Ishigami is trying to free architecture then we will have to unlock fixed formats and typologies so that they can become tools in the hands of the user. In the light of this ambition we can safely adopt and this time edit Ishigami’s final statement, saying the we “anticipate a future where new roles and conditions for information design materialize that have never previously been imagined.”