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Exploring the Definition of Information Design

I once overheard a professor from another school on campus refer to her course as a “passion-building” class. When she used that term, I immediately thought of classes that I had taken where a topic or idea continued to inspire or motivate me long after I received a grade. While passion-building moments certainly happen in many of our skills-based classes, I will continually champion courses that allow students to wander through conceptual and theoretical aspects. I think it’s important to give permission and opportunity for students to feel their way through the hard questions underlying some of the more practical applications that we are so well-versed at deploying. It’s at the root of those hard questions where passions get sparked, isn’t it?

Designing a New Experience in IST 600

This past spring, I taught a graduate level course entitled IST 600: Information Design. When I was asked to develop and teach this class, I knew that my idea of information design was slightly broader than the information graphics many people might think of. In fact, I believe that just about everything we do in Hinds Hall involves designing with information.

When I set out to create a class around the idea of Information Design, I wanted to create an experience for students that sparked a passion for information problems. I also wanted to empower them to use the practice of design to try to find answers to some of the difficult questions that define our work as information professional and scholars.

On the first day of class, we started with the mother of all hard questions: “What is information, anyway?”.  From what they told me later, many of the students left that first class with a headache and more than a few concerns about what exactly they had gotten themselves into. In the words of one first-year IM/LIS graduate student, “…there was a lot more to the class than pretty graphics”.  Thankfully, most of them stuck it out; Even on the first day, they showed me that they were beginning to see things differently.

What is Information Design?

When you think of information design, it may call to mind the last infographic you saw on NYtimes.com or CNN. Perhaps you’re familiar with popular websites Informationisbeautiful.com or the newly launched visual.ly. As my students came to find out, information design can take a lot of forms, such as:

  • The layout of the New York Times homepage
  • The interface of your favorite ATM machine
  • That database scheme you’ve been slaving over
  • The signage that leads you through the airport
  • The location and appearance of an average doorknob
  • The checklist printed on the cup holding your fancy coffee drink
  • The display of your favorite museum exhibit
  • The instruction manual for your new iPhone

Defining Design

Design is largely about making choices; When we make decisions that influence the way information is identified, structured, displayed, accessed, and stored, we are designing with information. Throughout the semester, students were presented with opportunities to experience for themselves how they, as both humans and technologists, can alter and influence the flow of information through the world.

The students in this first offering of IST 600: Information Design were exceptional. They stepped up to the challenge of thinking deeply and differently about information problems, and I think many of us felt that the seminar-styled class discussions were the best part of the semester.

Student Reactions to IST 600: Information Design

So were we successful in cultivating some passion and tackling some of the hard questions? Well, here’s what some of the students had to say at the end of the semester:

  • “Taking this class was like getting a new pair of glasses. I see things I did not see before. I cannot look around without noticing the interplay of people and information. … I learn something in every class I take, but not every class makes me think differently. This class challenges me every week to think in new and not always comfortable ways. I know that my learning in this area will continue long after class is over.”
  •  “Before I took this class, information to me was mostly about numbers and figures, be it on a computer screen or on paper. This class gave me an insight to what information really is in our daily lives, the kind of understanding it gives us, and how it can be drawn from every little thing we see around us…I have now begun to look at everything around so differently. Every little thing can be related to information.”
  • “Observing the system and the context [for my final project] allowed me to really tackle the problem in a very different way…[in the end] the solutions I came up with didn’t involve a lot of programming but were still efficient solutions to the information problem that I had identified…this course allowed me to look at information problems in a different way.”
  • “Taking this class made me realize that information design does not just relate to presentation and aesthetics but also involves decisions related to context, audience and effectively depicting salient details. An information designer needs to understand that different people have varying perceptions about the same information artifact …I was not aware of these nuances of information design prior to taking this class.”
  • “Like many other students, I expected mainly a design course, which is something I’m familiar with. Instead, I found myself being asked to define “information” and break down systems and analyze so far down into the building blocks that I could have sworn there was nothing else to break this stuff down into. Which was frustrating, but thoroughly rewarding in the end.”
  •  “As Dervin points out, we make meaning among ourselves through dynamic processes. We tell each other stories. Our understanding of the world is inherently within the context of actions we take to solve a problem. So why do we expect to come up with new insights by looking at patterns imposed by old ideas about what might be meaningful? This being said, how can we capitalize on all of the information we collect if we don’t make assumptions about what might be meaningful in it, especially since there is so much?”
  • “You can run but you can’t hide from Information Design!“
  • “Ultimately, this course was a tool that enabled a deep exploration of the user, the motivations of the user, the struggles of the user and the freedom and clarity the user needs to function and thrive in an information environment….Everyone should take this class.”