“How would I know if I truly understood something? I would know I understood if I could explain it to another human being.”
This quote from Richard Wurman’s essay on “The Business of Understanding” drives to the very essence of information design — to convey something in the clearest of forms to another person.
Often in the education setting, we are called to exhibit this same concept. Verbal presentations make our learning concrete. We are forced to digest the data and explain it in a manner that often takes the form of a story, a timeline, or some other well-organized production. Likewise, as information designers, we are called to do the same. To treat the data as a puzzle. Before we can present it the audience, we must first put the pieces together, recognize the image for ourselves, and then enthusiastically boast it’s presence to the viewers.
Designers have the power to create an exciting learning environment. Wurman encourages this aspect as one of the many important ways that one might foster understanding. “You must have some interest in receiving the information” in order to invite the viewer to adopt a similar attitude.
Secondly, Wurman encourages designers to look at information from unique perspectives and from “different vantage points” in order to shape it to fit the appropriate context. One must be creative and think outside of the box in order address the audience and their needs. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter audience; likewise, the information should not conveyed ignoring this fact. “By necessity, knowledge can only be gained by experiencing the same set of data in different ways and, therefore, seeing it from different perspectives.” This is grasped during the research stage, discovering data through more than one source.
By fusing these two ideas, content is no longer mundane. The pinnacle of information design is in providing the audience an “experience” which they take to heart and remember. Nathan Shedroff, in his essay, “Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design,”encourages the designer to create an “interaction” in which the viewer can participate in the information. In the same way teaching others lessens the learning curve, so does allowing the audience to learn hands-on.
This is where the challenge begins. It’s a task of balance between a passive and active approach to design:
The designer must make the information accessible to the audience, but not too elementary that the consumer loses interest. However, the information should not be introduced in too complex a manner, or it may form an exhausting barricade to the everyday viewer, one who comes in contact with too much data and information on a daily basis in the first place.
Both Wurman and Shedroff place an emphasis on telling stories. I believe that in some respects this is an appropriate way to achieve this balance. It is passive in that the viewer can sit back and absorb the data via an informational anecdote. Yet, it is still active in that a story can involve the viewer in a more intimate way — allowing an individual to form their own connection to the information and put themselves within the story as one of the characters. The driving ability from this balance is when the story’s initiative becomes an integral part of the audience, inspiring them to relive the experience. An information designer can use this effect — to make a difference, to start a movement, to create momentum.
Simply put: “One of the best ways of communicating knowledge is through stories, because good stories are richly textured with details, allowing the narrative to convey a stable ground on which to build the experience.” And this experience is exactly what the consumer needs: a reason to want to learn and a purpose for the information they’ve received.