Info Design Part 2: Here’s Your Quick-Start Primer on Information Design Theory
This is the second in a three-part series on Information Design.
In my last article, I outlined 3 key information design skills and some practical reasons why demand for these skills has been growing recently.
In this article, I’d like to take a step back and describe some key theories underpinning great information design.
I drew these ideas from two excellent books:
- The Truthful Art, by Albert Cairo, whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally during the Qlik Qonnections event in Miami last May. You can read the first 40 pages of his book for free here.
- Better Presentations, by Jonathan Schwabish.
Both Cairo as Schwabish also have their own web pages with lots of useful resources.
The books are great resources covering both sides of information design theory: creating information and presenting it. I recommend you read them both in full, but in the meantime I’ll share my most important takeaways.
Let’s start with how to go about creating information, according to Cairo.
In great information design, truth comes first.
It’s probably not a surprise that in a book called The Truthful Art, Cairo names truth as the information designer’s top priority. He suggests that information should be:
The idea is to work your way down the list after starting with the truth. To do so, put data into an accurate context where you can compare “apples to apples.”
While the truth may seem like an obvious priority, sadly it is not for many people working in media! Out-of-context, less-than-truthful information is everywhere. Consider this example on Cairo’s blog.
And even if you aren’t intentionally trying to mislead your audience, it is easy (and getting easier) to focus on other aspects of presentations, as I mentioned in my previous article. You owe it to yourself – and your audience – not to get distracted.
This emphasis on honesty is a result of Cairo’s background in journalism, where ethics have always played an important role. He suggests that everyone can learn a lesson from the field:
Good journalistic principles aren’t just for journalists.
While Cairo aimed this book at designers and journalists similar to himself, his work is popular among readers in many professions. Remember that when I met him, he was one of the presenters at a Business Analytics conference!
As a journalist, Cairo emphasizes the importance of accurate storytelling about relevant issues. This importance is growing in all areas of life – not just business – as the amount of data and information available to us (and others who may not have our best interests in mind) skyrockets.
Prioritizing truthful information and taking a journalistic approach to thinking about it, however, do not guarantee that your audience will understand it. At least not the way you want them to understand it! To help them do so, you also need to consider how to best present your information.
For guidance here, let’s turn to Schwabish’s Better Presentations.
The best presentations are easy on the audience.
One of Schwabish’s key introductory points is that your audience can only absorb so much information at one time. And even if you are presenting to geniuses, you want them to focus their brainpower on the point you are trying to make and its implications – not understanding what your point is in the first place.
How do you design a presentation that makes it easy for the audience to absorb the information the way you want them to?
Schwabish’s three-step framework is to:
- Visualize your content, as opposed to just writing it. Your audience will grasp ideas much faster when they are presented as pictures.
- Unify the elements of your presentation. Different colors, random fonts, and fluctuating tones will steal your audience’s attention away from your key message.
- Focus on your key message by leaving out information that doesn’t support it.
Another great tip from Schwabish is that audiences best “digest” a presentation structured like an hourglass. It should begin with a broad, catchy statement of your key message, narrow down to cover specific supporting facts, and then zoom out to leave the audience with a few general takeaways worth remembering.
So, now that you’ve got a good theoretical foundation, are you ready to get to work? In the next article I’ll introduce a practical, project management-inspired approach you can take to information design.