I’m undecided on information design. For a long time, I’ve been a big fan of Edward Tufte: his wordy-but-worthy book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is a classic of non-fiction (“Best 100 books of the 20th century.” - Amazon), and is self-exemplifying to a fault: the typography is beautiful, the illustrations rich and detailed. It’s also a classic treatise on how to visually abuse statistics. His other publications, whilst they cover some of the same topics, aren’t quite so easy to follow, although the short essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint is worth a read if you’re a Powerpoint hater like me (also see Peter Norvig’s Gettysburg Address in Powerpoint).
But Tufte seems only to be liked by elitists (a cynical and slightly cruel view of his work might say that it involves making graphics more complicated). Another hero of mine, Seth Godin, says: Edward and I disagree. He thinks people are a lot smarter than I do. I suspect what Seth is alluding to is the density of data. Tufte loves data that’s dense and rich, and when I’m feeling intelligent, I do too (I love the huge map of London on my wall; I dislike Harry Beck’s classic map of the London Underground for the same reason: why move the stations around to fit a neat pattern? You just lose their position for no good reason: try something like this instead). However, Seth’s approach does seem to be more realistic. Sometimes stuff just does need to be simple: you can’t always have a rich graph with 3 axes and 10,000 data points being a practical solution to a data illustration problem.
Most data presentation isn’t like either of these: it is just bad. Information design isn’t a field that many folks are aware of, but it is important (making plans to invade Iraq by Powerpoint is … well … just inappropriate. It’s hard to know what else to say). It’s particularly important as the world upgrades to Web 2.0, as a large part of the scope for improvement is in information design and presentation. It’s also simply pleasant to see data presented well. I just wish I could decide what the best approach is.