Information Design – the new name for Technical Communication?

In a recent blog post  by David Farbey, he discussed his attendance at a conference for information designers. He suggests that information design (ID) is in the ascendant with several university courses available in the UK, while technical communication is possibly in decline. With the closure at the end of this year of Sheffield Hallam University’s MA in technical communication – there will be no UK-based course in technical communication.

Whether or not you agree with his point of view will depend on whether you see ID as a separate skillset – a subset  – or even as an alternative name for technical communication. Put another way, information designers may not necessarily be technical communicators, but technical communicators could be seen as information designers, but with some additional skills.

My understanding of ID is that it involves – at the very least – the design of the layout of documents. For text, this includes typography: text colour, weight, alignment, leading; whitespace and other features that relate to optimising legibility. beck3

For graphics, this involves presenting the information in the most suitable format for its purpose – think flowcharts, subway maps (Harry Beck’s design of the London underground map, for example), infographics and icons. The integration of text and graphics is clearly within the scope of ID as well.

In an article in the STC Technical Communication journal, Ginny Redish (2000) presents two alternative views of ID. The first is consistent with my description above: the design of the way information is presented on page or screen. The second view appears to encompass the first and includes the entire document development process. If you accept the first view, information designers are simply involved with layout and presentation. If you take the second view, ID appears to be another name for technical communication!

This overlap of ID and technical communication is consistent with Robert Horn’s (2000) definition of ID as “the art and science of preparing information so that it can be used by human beings with efficiency and effectiveness. Its primary objectives are:

  1. To develop documents that are comprehensible, rapidly and accurately retrievable, and easy to translate into effective action.
  2. To design interactions with equipment that are easy, natural, and as pleasant as possible. This involves solving many problems in the design of the human-computer interface.
  3. To enable people to find their way in three-dimensional space with comfort and ease – especially urban space, but also, given recent developments, virtual space.”

Redish’s view of ID as a synonym for technical communication is supported by JoAnn Hackos (2007) when she suggests that “[ID] is much more than layout. Information design is the process of developing content that meets the needs of the audience – all the needs of the audience.”

And if ID is just about layout, why are the core courses in the Graduate Diploma of Information Design at CPIT:

  • Writing and editing
  • Research techniques and communication theories
  • Visual design
  • Information management
  • User experience and user testing.

Judging by a quick analysis of terms used in recruitment ads in NZ and Australia, it seems that although businesses may be finally getting used to the term “technical writer”, they are still struggling with “technical communicator”. Should we now instead regard ourselves as “information designers”? Should TCANZ become IDANZ?

What do you think?

References

Hackos, J. T. (2007). Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People, Indianapolis, Wiley Publishing Inc.

Horn, R. (2000). Chapter 2 ‘Information Design: emergence of a new profession’. In Information Design, ed. Jacobson, R.: MIT Press, pp15-33.

Redish, J. C. (2000). What is Information Design? Technical Communication, 47, 2, pp 163-166.

3 thoughts on “Information Design – the new name for Technical Communication?

  1. Hmm… being a recent graduate of the CPIT Graduate Diploma of Information Design where this is covered in the Professional Issues course the main thing for me is that this is really all about communication – technical writers focus on the text involved in communication and ID tends to be more towards the visual elements of communication.
    For myself, my actual role is that of a mid-level manager – so really I am using the skills and knowledge that I have to make sense of information and then to communicate that as effectively as possible to the people that need it. This may involve technical writing (reports), visual elements (our enrolment process), design (our marketing material) and also persuasive elements such as presentations.
    Robert Horn’s definitions leave out one element of an Information Designer – how they come to understand the information in the first place and then translate that into a form that can be communicated. His definitions are more about the output rather than the input.

  2. Margery Watson says:

    These days I am engaged in a range of activities related to communication – secretary of organisations, research assistant, editor, website designer and website content developer. In all of this I find myself applying my knowledge and skills acquired over many years working as a technical communication and information design. These days I spend a lot of time improving the effectiveness of items ranging from “simple” notices to long complex documents to presentation of information on the Web. In my view there are two main elements – the written content and the way that is structured and presented. I am constantly surprised at the communications that are ineffectual because of text that is poorly written and the lack of efficiency in the presentation, or sheer lack of information design. And when I have finished working on the material and present it to the “owner” they are surprised at what a difference a professional information designer can make.

    My point in that little story is that I consider information design has includes the elements of researching, writing, and structuring the information AND applying information design principles to its presentation. So I go along with the idea that we are “information designers” which is perhaps a more descriptive title than technical communicator. The word “technical” gets in the way – we are not communicating just technical information. As well we also have to “design” the finished article of communication that may cover a range of subject matter or topics..

  3. This is an insightful article, Steve; thank you, for sharing it with us.

    I have always said (and firmly believed) that the definition of definition is “building premise to restrict the usage of a term to its exact, understandable purpose.” Going by that thought, the very purpose of either technical communication or information design is to “communicate in the intended manner.”

    Whether technical communication should be a subset of information design is still open to discussion. But, I strongly feel that irrespective of how we define our tasks (or their purposes), the central idea – stated in my previous paragraph – still remains same.

    In my current stint, I prepare help files, manuals, release notes, videos, and occasionally blogs too. But my preparing blogs does not change my profile from a technical communicator to a content marketing person. Additionally, as a technical communicator, I do a bit of testing, customer interaction, and (through my effective documentation) help reduce consultation costs, but that only adds to the depth of skills that I require for my profile. I have dealt with a similar point in the following post: http://wp.me/P1bt0i-4N

    The only difference between technical communication and information design, from where I can see, is that the tools for expression of intention are different… intention, however, is still the same.

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