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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?


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.