What is Information Design?

As the dissemination of information is becoming more complex, there is a demand for writers and designers who can cope with the demands of information that might be delivered in multiple outputs and for different audiences. Information Designers facilitate the delivery of information by translating complex information into information that users can easily read and understand. The field of Information Design includes multidisciplinary skills in graphic design, writing, instructional design, and user experience.

Information Design

Virtually anything written or drawn falls under the heading of Information Design. Both traditional offline documents (e.g. advertisements, marketing collateral, technical documentation) and online documents (e.g. websites, product user interfaces, online help) match the description. Frankly, it seems reasonable to assume that any type of information should be carefully planned and executed in order to meet the needs of the target audience.

In the past, information was designed for a single output (e.g. a printed document). Today, information is designed for multiple outputs. For example, the traditional product specification can now be delivered on multiple media, using technologies to address multiple audiences. The product specification could be delivered as a paper-based spec sheet, as a section in a user guide or technical manual, as part of a web page, and even inside the product user interface.

So it stands to reason that the demand for Information Design, and Information Designers, will only increase as businesses continue to deliver their information in multiple forms using multiple technologies. This demand will only grow as we invent additional ways to deliver information to consumers using new technologies.

Who are today’s Information Designers?

So if there is so much demand for Information Design, where are all the Information Designers? It turns out that they are out there, in the business world, hiding under different names. Today, the practice of Information Design requires multiple skills such as graphic design, human factors design, writing and programming. As a result, it is fair to say that anyone who possesses any one of these skills (e.g. graphic designers, copywriters, technical writers, user interface designers, web developers) can justifiably call themselves an Information Designer.

Who are tomorrow’s Information Designers?

Herein lies the dilemma. If these people really are Information Designers, shouldn’t they be able to perform a variety of these skills? Using the definition above, if you were hiring an Information Designer, wouldn’t you ideally want them to have at least some degree of skill in information organization, graphic design, writing, screen layout, web client-server scripting, human-computer interaction design, instructional design and usability testing?

While there are varied opinions on the answer to this question, we believe that Information Designers will learn, practice and perfect several of the skills currently performed by multiple people. Over the long term, we believe there will be a skill convergence as people slowly add new skills to their personal inventory. In effect, they will become “workplace chameleons” switching from one skill to another depending upon the project requirements and timings.

Over time, we believe that this combination of skills will become the norm and may even become mandatory for many Information Design positions. Given the current economic climate, employers are already demanding more from their prospective new hires. As evidence of this trend, look at some job postings and you will see that employers are now asking for combination skill sets for many jobs. Companies are looking for people who can simultaneously write, design and develop websites. With a small amount of cross-training, many of today’s Information Designers could position themselves for these multi-skilled jobs.

Why should you care?

Frankly, the answer to this question depends on who you are. If you’re an existing Information Designer, you should be thinking about this evolution from both a financial and job security perspective. If you’re an employer, you should be looking at it from a productivity and financial perspective.

Consider the case of the Information Design contractor. We believe that adding new skills to your inventory will enable you to command a higher salary. As a contractor, you become the “cream of the crop”. Many years ago, I ran a consulting business that specialized in the writing and design of both print and online information. With multiple skills, I was able to charge approximately 50% more than my competitors for my services and was never out of work. Why? Because my clients understood that they could single-source the job rather than having to source a writer, a designer and a programmer. In effect, they were getting the work of three for the price of one-and-a-half and they didn’t have to deal with the logistical headaches of managing three people. The same model is even more appropriate in today’s economic environment.

As an employee, the same holds true and you have the added bonus of increasing your job security. Multiple skills make you more immune from layoffs. Think about it–who would you lay off? Robin who knows how to write, design and script the website or Jeff who writes well but can’t design or script to save his life. The answer is obvious. Unless Jeff is a budding “Shakespeare”, he’ll probably end up as roadkill.

From an employer’s perspective, the answer to the question is even more obvious. Who would you rather employ? A person who can perform one skill or a person who can perform multiple skills?

From a cost perspective, you may end up paying a little bit more (or in this economy, maybe the same) but from a management perspective, you will be saving a whole lot of time and trouble. For example, imagine you are a project leader and you are assembling a project team. Think about the logistical problems associated with assembling and managing a team in order to deliver one online and offline document.

Now, think about your employee attrition strategy for a moment. Today, if the graphic designer quits, three other people and the project are affected by the departure. Tomorrow, if you have several people with multiple skills, the problem becomes one of scheduling while you re-balance the workload instead of a disaster recovery program while you find a person capable of performing the skill.

What does all this mean?

The diverse methods of delivering information means that most companies have now doubled or tripled their information design requirements. Whether they like it or not, they must now feed two media beasts: traditional print medias and electronic medias.

In the long term, this will translate into increased market demand for those who possess Information Design skills. Multi-skilled Information Designers can expect to reap the rewards of their skills by increasing their job security and being more competitive when seeking new employment.