in practice, an informed theory
InformForm is an international platform for information design, which celebrates and explores both practical and theoretical experimentation within the field of design. It prides itself on showcasing relevant examples of work by students, for students. Read More
Sandra Rendgen is an author and editor with a focus on visual culture and technology. Her work looks at on data visualisation, interactive media and generative design as well as research in the history of maps and diagrams. She has published two books “Information Graphics” and “Understanding the World” with Taschen.
You authored the publications ‘Information Graphics’ and ‘Understanding the World: The Atlas of Infographics’. Both of these books contain a large number of references. How did the process of putting them together start?
The process was intense and took months and months of work. Both books are comprehensive reference volumes on the current landscape in information visualisation and we worked in a very small team with Taschen’s design editor, Julius Wiedemann. We started by forming the concept for the book, and forming the editing angle that we wanted to take when selecting from the huge volume of interesting projects available in the field.
‘Information Graphics’ tried to capture the variety of styles and contexts in which information visualisation is used today. We collected a very broad variety of work, from fine arts, education and science to journalism and entertainment. But our aim with ‘Understanding the World’ was to create a larger narrative, and to look at how a selection of information graphics can form an atlas of the problems and challenges we’re facing in the world today.
Both of these books have been organised quite differently. ‘Information Graphics’ has been organised according to Wurman’s L.A.T.C.H. principles and ‘Understanding the World: The Atlas of Infographics’ is thematically laid out. How did you select the huge amounts of content? What was the most useful method of organisation?
Selecting the projects is an iterative process. I did most of the research myself, and that meant reviewing hundreds of pieces of work. Showing a variety of work was one of the guiding principles and we started to build from several core pieces that we really thought represented the particular book.
It was difficult to find a system to structure the body of diverse material in ‘Information Graphics’. Wurman’s L.A.T.C.H principle provided an intelligent solution. He observed five basic ways to organise information: by location, by alphabet, by time, by category and by hierarchy. I thought this was a very profound observation, as it directs our attention to the type of information that is visualised in a given piece.
The process was a little different for ‘Understanding the World’ as we were aiming at creating a larger narrative. In this case, the five chapters Nature, Science, Economy, Society and Culture were determined in an early stage of research. The selection started with several core pieces but we also focussed on creating sequences of works which would go well together and that would enrich each other in their messages.
InformForm advocates that an understanding of the work of other information designers – historical and contemporary – is essential to developing our own practice. How do you feel your own efforts in collating such a vast amount of material contributes to this idea?
I share the principle that an informed understanding of other designers and their work strongly supports our own. I would even say that we need a general literacy in information visualisation work. This includes a deeper analysis of the actual information represented. What type of data has been used? What kind of editorial decisions have been made when creating a piece?
I would hope that large reference volumes such as ‘Information Graphics” and ‘Understanding the World’ support the process of creating such literacy. Discussions on online platforms such as Twitter also bring about a professional culture of sharing and discussing work, which in turn should enhance the overall quality of work produced in our field.
What are your thoughts on the future for information design and visualisation?
I think new tools are developing and the challenges and possibilities in information visualisation are constantly evolving. There is a quest for new modes of representation and new opportunities for user interaction.
I consider information visualisation a communication technique, which will diffuse into many aspects of our lives and will support decision-making on many different levels. These are not dreams of the future, this is happening already and information graphics and data visualisation are used everywhere.
But one of the big challenges of information design continues to be the question of how visual design can support this function in various everyday situations and make complex information more accessible. This will become more important, and we can expect that predictions and decision-making based on data analytics will become an integral part of our lives in the future.
Do you think interactivity might play a role in this?
Interactivity plays a major role in contemporary information visualisation. Tools such as zooming, filtering, shifting or highlighting can help users to navigate easily through a large set of information – they allow us to present more information or data in one single representation than in static pieces.
For the creators, these options also pose the risk of cramming all available data into one visualisation, which in turn becomes hard to decipher. I think we will always need careful and intelligent editing to create powerful visualisations.
Finally do you have any advice for students studying the subject?
In our media-focussed world, we often quickly glance at projects from other designers that are posted on Twitter or Facebook. We like, share or re-tweet their work and then forget about it. My advice is this: try to spend the time actually analysing work that’s interesting or fascinating for you.
Ask yourself the key questions.
How is it structured?
What focus was chosen?
What type of data is used?
Which metaphors or representations were used to visualise the data?
Does the visual design support the main message?
How exactly does it do that in colours, fonts and illustrations?
I believe that by thoroughly analysing the work of fellow designers and editors, we can gain a deeper understanding of pitfalls and opportunities in designing information.