Web Design is Information Design | April 2, 2004

Graphic designers tend to concern themselves mostly with the aesthetics of design. Do the colours work well together? are the shapes visually appealing? does the overall piece elicit the desired emotional response?

A good graphic designer is more akin to a commercial artist. Creating beautiful, evocative pieces of work that could be seen as art in their own right. Is it any wonder then, that print designers often refer to their work as "Artwork".

Information design is seen as the poor cousin of graphic design. While the graphic designers are off creating beautiful artwork for posters, logos or glossy brochures, an information designer is more at home designing airport signs or end of year reports.

Whereas the graphic designers job is usually to make something look good, the information designers job is to make something as logical and as easy to understand as possible. The information designer is less artist and more information architect and usability expert.

Designing information isn't particularly sexy (which is probably why so few people do it), but in an age where time is short and information is everywhere, Information design is critical.

And this is where the web comes in. The primary reason people use the web is to find information. If a web site has been designed well, it's easy for a visitor to find and digest the information they are looking for. Conversely, a badly designed web site will frustrate the user and make the content much less accessible.

I believe web design has much more in common with information design, than it does with straight graphic design. In fact, I'd go as far as to say, web design is information design.

This was hammered home to me the other day while working on a small redesign job. I was sat in front of Photoshop tasked with redesigning the home page for an e-commerce site. Knowing which elements were needed on the page, I started adding them one at a time. I'd start by adding the most important elements first, and when they were in the right place, I'd add the less important elements.

Once the page hierarchy was more or less right, I'd move things around within the hierarchy in order to promote certain bits of information and demote other bits. When things needed emphasising I'd emphasise them, when things needed separating, I'd separate them.

The design started out with a basic concept, but the end result was pure information design. Elements were placed on the page because that's were they made the most sense, not because that's where they looked the nicest.

I'd always associated web design with graphic design, but it really is much closer to being a subset of Information design.

Posted at April 2, 2004 12:55 PM

Comments

Bobby van der Sluis said on April 2, 2004 2:05 PM

Andy, I agree with you that there are too many design agencies that only look at the stickyness of their designs and are way less bothered with good information design and the functional and usable side of web design.

Web design equals information design would be the opposite of this statement and wrong too, because you miss the point that branding also plays an important role for companies.

So I would say web design = graphical design + information design + .. But point taken, a lot of companies (both design agencies and clients) underestimate the different roles that a web design project should have.

Bobby van der Sluis said on April 2, 2004 2:10 PM

What happened to my

line breaks?

Jay said on April 2, 2004 3:50 PM

Having my degree in communications design (my school’s way of saying information design) I can say your assumption is spot on. In fact we worked on exactly those things you mentioned: program visualization and signage were a focus until we tackled the web. The web is truly the blend of graphical art and information architecture. An artistic logo is necessary for brand identity, but shoddy design and not giving the users what they want “right frigging now” on the web is a way to lose a customer for life these days.

My friends at first didn’t click into the whole XHTML/CSS bug because the resulting web pages seemed to sparse. Why go to a web site if it looks like nothing is there? they would cry. Then, they began to realize that these sites would give them their information faster, with fewer links clicked, and they loved them.

Milan Negovan said on April 2, 2004 3:55 PM

Great post, Andy! Maybe this is a rhetorical statement but a lot of web developers despise web design. Often times you’d hear “I hate tweaking that UI!”. Conversely, designers don’t always understand why developers absolutely have to stick to certain conding practices. It’s an epic standoff between information design and web design. I envy organizations that found balance.

How said on April 2, 2004 4:04 PM

You’ve raised a point that I have been thinking about recently; the definition of web design and the problems associated with people branding themselves “web designers”.

Firstly, we have to clarify the difference between visual web design, and web design. If I understand you correctly, you are talking about defining visual web design. Yeah, a lot of that is going to be information design… but at the same time, the term can’t be used interchangeably with web design…Remember all that accessibility malarkey? For the screen reader using folk, visual information design means nothing.

The definition of web design is defined by context. If you have identified that your primary site audience will be searching for information, then most of the design work is likely to be information design, in both a visual context but more likely to be in a structural context.

If your primary audience are trying to complete some kind of task, then it’s likely that the design focus will be a blend of information design with interface design. Task analysis anyone?

Conversely, if you are trying to create an experience then information design might become a little irrelevant.

If you look at the conflicting requirements of creating information based websites vs. task based websites vs. something more experiential, you will see that web design can be anything from art, graphic design, emotional design, information design (both visual and structural) to interface design. Oh yeah, then there is accessibility, CSS, XHTML and sever side programming, areas of expertise that, apparently, are in the realm of the “web designer”.

One thing is clear; there cannot be any generic “web designers”. Very few people are capable of doing all of the above successfully. Instead, we should be looking to create web design teams, comprising of people from disciplines as diverse as graphic design and human factors to copywriters and editors… depending on the nature of the project, naturally.

Do these teams exist? Are they used? Perhaps, in some very high profile cases. Unfortunately, in the majority they are not, and this alone goes a long way in explaining why the web industry is in the tight spot it is. Sure, there might be some after the fact and ad-hoc collaboration between, say, graphic designers and programmers, but I believe that only with true, co-ordinated multidisciplinary input, most web projects will fail to recover their costs due to conceptual or actual design flaws.

My apologies if this doesn’t make sense. I blame Friday afternoons…

Malarkey said on April 2, 2004 4:47 PM

Howard, you make perfect sense ;)

“… accessibility, CSS, XHTML and server side programming, areas of expertise that, apparently, are in the realm of the web designer. One thing is clear; there cannot be any generic web designers.”

This was exactly the topic discussed at a recent North Wales web forum, you put it very succinctly.

Malarkey said on April 2, 2004 4:54 PM

Just spotted this How,

“Remember all that accessibility malarkey?”

:)

Andy Budd said on April 2, 2004 5:17 PM

Hi How,

Good comments. Your right that my post was directed towards the “design” part of web design and that being a web designer involves much more than just visual design.

I’d agree that the definition of design is based around the context. There are a few sites out there that are wholly artistic or experiential. However the bulk of sites fall into the informational variety.

I’d argue that interface design was information design. Just as the information designer has to design the visual clues for as person to navigate around an airport say, so does the interface designer with the interface. To me GUI design is a particular form of Information Design. It’s essentially the design of navigational signage, just applied to a virtual space, as opposed to a real space.

I’d say the same was true of experience design. It’s simply information design over time. It uses the same skills of Information Architecture and knowledge of the user, it just involves a third dimension.

Sadish said on April 2, 2004 6:14 PM

I agree with you..This has been in my thoughts in the recent past, when i re designed my website.
I have always wondered why people think , web design is something to do with the graphic designer. Its something definitely more than that.
(hey by the way, this preview thing at the bottom is really cool :) )

Keith said on April 2, 2004 7:30 PM

Andy, you make some good points. This is something that has bothered me forever. Graphic design has little to do with Web design and that misconception has caused all sorts of grief on the Web.

I do think Web design is closer to information design, but I’ll take it a step further.

Web design is Web design!

The Web is a unique medium and one that warrants designers that are dedicated to it and nothing else.

At SXSW Jeff Veen talked about how he wouldn’t work with a designer on a Web site unless they were a native Web designer. Sounds kind of harsh, but I see exactly where he’s coming from.

Of course a graphic designer can make the jump to Web design — but it’s hard and they’d really need to commit to the Web to be successful.

Andrei Herasimchuk said on April 2, 2004 8:28 PM

Some very good points in the article and the comments. I think you might want to take it one step further though. Even here on your website, you have this “live preview” going with comments, and some other interesting behavioral pieces. (At least in Safari on Mac OS, which is what I’m using.) Are those behavorial pieces “information design?”

Not from my point of view.

If you start to make some more logical leaps and include the behavorial processes into the logic of this article, then I think you’ve reached the full circle of what design was in the high-tech arena before the “dead page design” of the web became so popular. That is what I call interface design. If that term is too old school or controverisal, then I would simply call it “high-tech product design.”

Keith said on April 2, 2004 8:45 PM

Andrei — I see what you mean. However (you knew that was coming…) I see interface design as a dicipline (for lack of a better term) of Web design.

All that really means is that Web design is more than just interface design.

That’s not to down play the importance of interface design on the Web at all. And I guess I could see how you might equate Web design with interface design — depending on how you defined interface design.

Would you consider something like content layout on the Web interface design? If so, and I could see how one might, than yeah — Web design is, in essence, a kind of interface design.

Still, I don’t see the problem with just calling Web design what it is — “Web design.”

I may be the only one though.

Andrei Herasimchuk said on April 2, 2004 10:21 PM

I guess it comes from a point of view of the umbrella term you give to design work in the space. You see, my definition comes from seeing three distinct disciplines: graphic design, information design and interaction design. Most high-tech design requires some form of multi-disciplinary approach, and the combination of the three is what I call interface design. (For reasons laid out in the article I pointed to.) You can call product design if you want. But I don’t consider either of these two things a subset of “web design.” Quite the opposite actually.

There’s a scale of how much each of the fields (GD, IA and UX) is used in the high-tech sector on various projects. The lowest amount of the skills from the three used of these is web design. Why? Because the amount of interaction allowed to be built into a web or browser based product is severly limited to what is possible inside a browser. Once you break away from the browser, you are basically into the realm of traditional desktop application design. (Like Photoshop or Word or WinAmp, etc.) If you have the ability to control the hardware as well (like designing the Palm or Blackberry devices), you are in the full high-tech product design realm.

But is interface design or product design a subset of web design? Not in my opinion. Especially considering how crippled the interaction element of web design is currently.

Chris Vincent said on April 3, 2004 12:06 AM

Web design really encompasses a lot of different design fields. Information design, graphic design, branding… It all comes together.

Information design, of course, is most important, because that’s the design of the way the site will be used.

Phil Baines said on April 3, 2004 1:21 AM

Another very good post, Thanks Andy.

I am a person that likes aesthetically pleasing things. But it is comments and posts like this that remind me that my life as a web developer has to be about information design, and information architecture. I can keep my artistic side for painting, drawing and photography.

However, surely the greatest challenge is to mix the two elements without loosing something in the information design? Is it viable to create good information architecture, and then make the ‘container’ for that architecture visually pleasing also?

Eric said on April 3, 2004 2:39 AM

Phil: that’s exactly why we need teams, as Howard commented on already. You can’t deliver an ugly product that has a great UI and be successful. But if it’s not your gift, find someone who can do it and get help. If you can do both reasonably well, but not backend coding (I think I fall somewhere near this) then get help with PHP (or your language of choice).

I think the ideas of information design (whether you think it’s a sexy term or not) seem to be the closest to the web…I’m with Andrei here. Signage, annual reports, websites, etc, all interface with people. They are a membrane between an entity and that entity’s constituency, whether customers or stakeholders. The membrane, by definition, needs to interface between these two.

Interfacing is the whole meal deal. It requires graphic impact, because nobody’s going to respect something that’s ugly. It requires usability, because people will get frustrated and leave if they can’t do what they want to do. It requires speed and data interaction, because people want to know things and buy things now.

I am training to be an architect. There are many things I will never be an expert in, such as landscape design or complex structures. But I’m expected to know the basics, and then work with skilled people. I can’t be ignorant of any issue completely. I think the web is the same - we need to understand at least the basics of the primary subjects so we can design the entire system and have it work.

Tim Parkin said on April 4, 2004 12:25 PM

This is why it’s imperative not to just give a graphic designer a blank canvas. I find it works a lot better if you start with an information design and work out the flexibilities in it and then give this to a designer.

The feedback loop between designer and builder is then essential if a coherent solution is to evolve.

Tim

Veerle Pieters said on April 4, 2004 12:48 PM

I agree with you and also with Keith “Of course a graphic designer can make the jump to Web design — but it’s hard and they’d really need to commit to the Web to be successful.” Now that’s so true if you want to be a good one. That’s what I try to be. I do both web and print, and since I started with web back in 1996, there were only tools like BBEdit, so I learned it the “hard” way, and now that pays off ;-)

LazyJim said on April 5, 2004 1:36 AM

First, this is very good discussion. In the end, I think web design is - Web Design.
(See post by the good people at *asterisk - “web design is web design”).

Second, I agree with what Eric said above, you can’t be expected to know all fields in detail, but it’s your job to know everything just sufficiently to communicate with specialists and/or to factor in the extra parameters imposed by fields you don’t specialise in. Those fields include things from design, science, art, technology, manufacture, philosophy, writing, marketing…….. The reason is you must now about the constraints they impose and the possibilities they provide.
So it doesn’t matter whether you come from graphic design, industrial design, information design, interaction design or flippin’ widget design - there should always be the core design principles and practice, many relating to science and art, in your education and training before you start to specialise.

Third, you all have been discussing what I believe to be design.

We should stop arguing over fields of design, as any field of design should simply be “universal” Design applied in a particular context. Therefor web design is one of the many facets of Design.
Instead we should attempt to differentiate design from the ‘other’ sort of design, (there are two sorts I believe, see A and B below):
-A(noun): a 2D pattern, drawing, some other kind of decoration or the visual arrangement of lines, forms and textures.
-A(verb): the act of producing A(noun).
-B(noun): a plan of action, description of a product or scheme of resolve, devised with intent of purpose.
-B(verb): to identify purpose and objective intent and conceive the plan of action, product specification or scheme.

Those are my own definitions, not from a dictionary, they are my opinions based on what I’ve seen and believe, I don’t profess to be an authority on semantics or dictionary definitions, but looking through various dictionaries you’ll see both types are mentioned either in more or less detail than I just defined.

So one of the verbs “to design” is concerned with problem identification, analysis, purpose, and resolve; the other verb “to design” is concerned with production of graphical elements.

The fact that the design(A) employs design(B) for a communication aid amongst the development team and stakeholders, and that design(B) is often a large part of the manufacture process (realising/fabricating the designed plan/product), causes someone watching from the outside, to confuse the two types.
Basically, designing means both to shape and decorate a product, and to conceive of the product in the first place.

Graphic design seems to encompass both sorts of design as the conception and production are so intimately linked. Which is similar to the most common form (currently) of “web design” - the XHTML and CSS, scripting and final graphics drawing usually carried out by “web designers” is all production, which should usually happen after design. If you know the production techniques and technology well enough then great, you can miss out the middle man so to speak, and save having to communicate your design to someone else, as you can physically produce the finished product yourself.

I’d like to see the public and our clients understand the difference between the two types of design and appreciate both.
In addition I’d like people who call themselves a designer to know which type of design they do and sell that to clients rather than let the clients guess which type of designer they are going to get.

Just my 2 dollars, keep the change but feel free to discuss.

LazyJim said on April 5, 2004 1:45 AM

oops!
sorry I got my alphabet a bit muddled!
The following quote shoud have the (A)s and (B)s the other way around!

“The fact that the design(A) employs design(B) for a communication aid amongst the development team and stakeholders, and that design(B) is often a large part of the manufacture process (realising/fabricating the designed plan/product), causes someone watching from the outside, to confuse the two types.”

Sorry for any confusion, I should learn to read my work after a load of copy&paste re-organising!

Gordon said on April 5, 2004 2:23 PM

A good [insert your preferred industry term] has one key skill above all others - understanding of the customer’s expectations.

Web design incorporates facets of many skill bases, I can relate as a Technical Author, we don’t JUST write, we study information, plan how it may/will be used, and layout that information in a usable, coherent package.

So maybe you should all become ‘Technical Communicators’ and save all the squabbling. ;-)

jp said on April 9, 2004 12:27 PM

This was intresting post Andy. I enjoy to read comments as well. :)