5 Simple Information Design Rules

Designing information for display can seem difficult or impossible. I believe the following guidelines are some of the most powerful ideas in information design and that they will help you to become a more effective visual communicator if you apply them to your work.

Five Hat Racks

There are only five ways to organize information. Let that sink in. Internalizing this fact makes choosing a way to display your information a lot easier. Also, taking the time to sort your information all five ways can lead to breakthrough insights. Try it.

Information can be organized by: (1) location, (2) alphabet, (3) time, (4) category and (5) magnitude. If you substitute ‘hierarchy’ for ‘magnitude’ you get Richard Saul Wurman’s L.A.T.C.H. acronym, also referred to as ‘five hat racks’ in his book Information Anxiety. The acronym leaves you without an excuse for forgetting these. You’re welcome.

Multivariate Data

Train schedules like this one pack a lot of information, or have a high data density. This example is from the first chapter of Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information, which explores many methods for bringing information graphics to life and encourages the reader to strive for high data density in their work.

Typography Choices

There’s a lot to know about typefaces, but unless you’re already a type nerd, some simple rules can keep your graphics looking clean. According to Susan Verba, one of my professors at UC Davis, the following pairs of typefaces go well together:

  1. Univers and Garamond
  2. Helvetica and Times Roman
  3. Myriad and Minion
  4. Arial and Georgia
  5. Verdana and Georgia (on the internet)

Going deeper, Susan once said in a lecture, and I paraphrase, “Typefaces should be evaluated on character, they allow you to impart personality on your project”. If you’ve got time and you want to do exactly that, you can head over to https://fonts.google.com/ to look at some free (and sometimes quite large) font families. Usually it’s best to us to two fonts at most per project. A single (large) font family can often do everything you need.

Small Multiples

The proximity of these images invites comparison and alleviates the need to remember another image: everything we want to see is present. According to Wikipedia the term ‘small multiples’ was popularized by Edward Tufte. No real surprise there.

Credibility

Citing sources and putting your name on your work are two of the simplest, most important steps you can take to ensure your work can be respected and taken seriously.

I learned everything I know about information design in the UC Davis design program, mostly from Susan Verba. Much of what I learned can be found in the excellent textbook she used called Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte.

I hope you enjoyed thinking about information graphics today. If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave a response below. I’d be happy to hear from you.

The next article in this series can be found here.