Charles Minard was a French civil engineer. In 1869, he published what is now an oft-cited flow map on the subject of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 (above). This infographic is notable not just for its aesthetic beauty, but its supreme functionality, representing several variables in a single two-dimensional image:
The size of Napoleon’s army, as depicted by the solid colour band, provides a strong visual representation of human suffering — for example, the sudden decrease of the army’s size at the crossing of the Berezina river on its retreat;
The geographical co-ordinates, latitude and longitude, of the army as it moved;
The direction that the army was traveling, (in advance and retreat), showing where units split off and rejoined;
The location with respect to dates;
The weather along the path of the retreat.
All this, and not a single computer program at his disposal.
History lesson 2: Playfair
We could in fact go even further back — to the very first record of mankind communicating with one another in a written form. And like hieroglyphs, they used pictures, rather than a series of letters, to represent ideas.
The fact that the origins of language were based around a highly visual medium indicates that humans are naturally inclined to process information in a visual way, which makes good information design as important in communication’s continuing evolution as it was 30,000 years ago.
What does all this mean?
In a corporate communications context, information design is valuable on a few levels:
It gives you the ability to communicate complex data & information in a clear and credible way;
Creating an infographic requires the data to pass through a third-party ‘filter’ (the information designer). In order to properly design an infographic, the designer needs to understand the information itself. Simply going through the process of designing an infographic can highlight areas where the information is unclear, or in some cases even inaccurate;
Like creative thinking, information design requires a combination of factual analysis and visual experimentation, thereby fostering a more holistic approach to problem-solving;
Information design adds meaning and value to data, often by drilling down to the essence of the story behind it, to make that data relevant in the context of a wider narrative.
OK. So what's in store?
From Minard to Microsfoft, information design is already a part of most people’s daily lives. Whether it be through using information design principles to create effective wayfinding systems, convey historical events (in some cases of things that are yet to happen), or just have a bit of fun more and more people are realising that information design doesn’t start and finish with an excel chart wizard. And in our increasingly visual world, it’s this return to how we natually prefer to communicate that makes information design more important than ever before.
Here, we share some of our opinions on a range of subjects, adapted from lectures we've delivered at public events and universities and curated for your reading pleasure. Want our opinion on something? Drop us a line.
In many ways, Information Design can be seen as the forerunner to creative thinking — approaching complex communication problems in a creative way, based on observation, empathy, and insight. In others words, true information design is much more involved than colouring in a pie chart.
So, what is it then?
In the simplest terms, information design is the marriage of data and visuals. Or in other words, data presented in visual shorthand. Much like design thinking, user experience design and others, information design has only recently come to the fore as a powerful business tool (and in some circles, a great way to add some ‘nerd chic’ to your home or office). But it’s actually been around for years. Probably more than you think.
History lesson 1: Minard
William Playfair, a Scottish engineer, is widely credited with inventing diagrams to communicate what was previously tabular information including the line graph, bar and pie chart. These types of infographics are so widely used today it’s hard to imagine life (and especially Microsoft programs) without them.
History lesson 3: Hieroglyphs
To draw a slightly longer bow, we could even traverse time a few thousand years back to the ancient Egyptians, whose written language of hieroglyphs essentially comprised a series of pictograms used to express thoughts, ideas and concepts (which are really no different to our modern day glyphs). But rather than a series of letterforms adding up to the spelling of a single word to represent one of these concepts, their hieroglyphic 'alphabet' was a moveable feast — with different symbols representing different sounds depending on the context, or even complete ideas, almost like a logo (hence being referred to as 'logograms'). And you thought emoticons were relatively new.
History lesson 4: Cave painting