3 Powerful Lessons I have learnt as an Information Designer

Designing information effectively is a wonderful and complex challenge. I feel grateful that in the past ten years I have had the opportunity of working with extraordinary teams of scientists to the end of communicating complex data. These three lessons are among the most precious lessons I have learnt along my journey. I have shared them at the 23rd Cochrane Colloquium in Vienna with the largest and most attentive audience of scientists I could ever imagine.


‘It’s all about the process’

Information design is a process that lies at the core of any form of communication. Information graphics and diagrams are only one type of result in information design. There are many types and they are everywhere.

Designer Nathan Shedroff writes that Information design addresses the organization and presentation of data, its transformation into valuable, meaningful information.

This transformation is a complex process discussed by theorists, philosophers, designers such as Russell Ackoff, Harlan Cleveland, Richard Saul Wurman, Nathan Shedroff. The diagram representing this process is known as the DIKW diagram (Data Information Knowledge Wisdom).

The DIKW diagram by Nathan Shedroff

Working as an information designer offers continuous opportunities for experiencing the stages of this process. Precious discussions with colleagues, students, audiences, activists, scientists and researchers have shed light on the practical challenges of this transition. An incremental journey of reflection has resulted in several variations of the extended DIKW-C diagram (Data Information Knowledge Wisdom-Change).

Some variations of the DIKW-C diagram

The major focus of the process is our audience and their context. When I use the word audience I do not mean simply lay people, I also refer to experts, governments, policymakers anybody that should understand the information we communicate, because they need to make decisions with that information or because they have to act in order to change something, in order to implement an intervention.

On the other extreme we have the data. Data is the product of creation, research, gathering, discovery. It is the raw material we use to build our communications. Data is not a complete message, it does not have informational value.

When data is structured and organised in a specific way, it can turn into information. By exploring different ways of organising our data, we will discover that each way can communicate a different message or highlight a different pattern.

Presenting information can lead to knowledge and knowledge can be acquired by building compelling narratives, experiences, interactions, so that the patterns and meanings in the information can be learned by others.

Wisdom is the ultimate level of understanding, it is the result of reflection and introspection.

Knowledge and wisdom can guide our decisions, leading to action and change in our society, in our communities, in our family. We all know how challenging this stage is.

The process from data to change, that on the diagram looks so neat, in reality looks more like this:

It is not tidy and neat at all, because of different reasons.

1. Because of the collaborative nature of the design process that involves different users, experts, designers, stakeholders.

2. Because cognition itself is complex. Information is mediated by the human brain, it is not the message the goes into the brain but the interpretation of that message and how it is encoded.

3. Because science tells us that, as human beings, we assess how the information we receive is going to affect our lives, our context, our values and the links to the social groups we belong to; when information threatens those values we refuse to accept the information even if there is scientific evidence behind it.

4. Because even if the information is communicated properly, even if we understand it, even if we make the right decisions, we might not be able to act because there are barriers out there that prevent us from doing so.

In order to facilitate the transition from data to action nothing is more important than managing the design process in a participatory way, by knowing our audience and the context in which the information will be received, understanding barriers and facilitators of that context, diving in first person in the users’ life, facilitating the dialogues among the people involved in the design process.

In a participatory design approach, challenge and target audience are the starting points, and everything unfolds through cycles of prototyping, testing, feedback. Learning how your audience will decode the information, understanding their context, building a real dialogue with them, designing with them, listening to their needs, taking their feedback seriously, improving the design according to that feedback, that is really crucial.

A participatory approach should be the backbone of any information design project. The result is that any final solution, whether it is an info-graphic or a map, a service or an experience, usually solves a specific challenge, serves a specific purpose, has a specific audience, is meant to be used in a specific context. You might experience that it fulfils the needs of many more people you would have expected, but it does not have an absolute correctness. There is no such a thing as a universally perfect solution.


‘Cognition is in the detail’

Information design and data visualisation are promoted as powerful tools for presenting information successfully. But why? The reason lies in our genes, in our human nature, and as designers we know that human nature is so sophisticated that even the smallest design detail can contribute to success and failure in visualising information effectively.

The human visual system is an enormously powerful pattern detector and Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders converted the bandwidth of our senses to computer terms to help us understand the extraordinary capabilities of our visual system, in comparison of the other senses.

Bandwidth of our senses by Tor Nørretranders

The blue area is the amount of information we perceive per second through sight. Pink is touch, yellow is hearing and smell, taste is the magenta. We process information through all our senses, but our visual system is by far the fastest and most active one. The white spot on the right lower corner is when we become conscious of what we just perceived.

The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a parallel processor that provides the largest gateway into our cognitive centres.

Perception and cognition are linked. The close link between seeing and thinking on an intellectual level is expressed in the very physiology of the eye. The retina is made of brain cells. The brain begins at the back of the eyes and that’s where seeing turns into thinking.

Professor Colin Ware writes that we should think about information design tools as cognitive tools that enhance and extend our brains. Diagrams, maps, web pages, information graphics, visual instructions, technical illustrations help us solve problems through a process of visual thinking.

When we interact with an information display, such as a map, diagram, chart, graph, or a poster on the wall, we are trying to solve cognitive problems, our brain is trying to answer visual queries.

Design has to take care of visual queries making sure they are processed both rapidly and correctly. In order to achieve that, it is important to understand what type of solution our users need and how to design that solution. Effective design should start with a visual task analysis.

You determine the set of visual queries to be supported by a design and then use color, forms, typography, white space, grids, layout to serve efficiently those queries.

You need to make sure users see what they need to see and at the right time. Even one pixel can make a difference to cognition and understanding. Cognition is in the detail. Getting the details right is as painful as rewarding, it takes a lot of testing and a lot of professional eyes. A lot of blood and tears!


‘Beauty will save the world’

One of the first things I have realised when I started studying design after my degree in Engineering, is that beauty, joy, engagement, sense of wonder are a crucial part of designing information effectively, because they can make information memorable, they can engage through the channel that professor Daniel Kahnemann calls System 1, the emotional system, the storytelling system.

When I use the word beauty I do not mean aesthetics for the sake of it, I do not mean beautification of the data. I mean beauty as a consequence of mastering the content with the help of experts, as a consequence of adopting a participatory approach, as a consequence of creating a result that is desirable, that is something people understand, like, love, enjoy using.

At the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Health Services in Public Health we assess our design with a framework based on Morville’s honeycomb where you have variables such as usability, usefulness, credibility but also desirability.

I have shared the three lessons at the 23rd Cochrane Colloquium in Vienna. The colloquium brought together more than 1300 researchers and scientists from around the world to discuss the challenges of producing, maintaining, and disseminating evidence-informed health care through high-quality systematic reviews.

Plenary talk — 23rd Cochrane Colloquium — Vienna

In the talk I describe how information design and data visualisation can help bridge the gap between scientists and their audiences, through deep engagement and collaboration with both.

I also share the design process of the Interactive Summary of Findings Table (iSoF), a project I have been involved in for the past five years. The iSof is an interactive tool that enables producers to visualise for end-users the key messages of systematic reviews in a concise format, including the most important outcomes (both benefits and harms), the size of the effects, and the certainty of the evidence.