Sunday, January 22, 2012
"Difference that Makes a Difference" [ID Part I]
This semester, I'm taking Information Design, a studio class led by the inimitable Jaime Snyder. As part of an experiment in radical information sharing, I'll be making my notes available publicly, in blog form. Please add your own thoughts to my synthesis of material in the comments.
Week One, 1/18 "Designing with Information"
We dove right in, exploring the possible definitions of information (something that will doubtless be a semester-long task). The mutability of useful information is best illustrated by this YouTube video, and it helps to show that one key definition of information is "difference that makes a difference" (Gregory Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972).
The class looks like it'll be quite an exploration. There aren't "right" answers, and the approach will vary from week to week as we look at different applications of information design. (Hint: Everyone designs their information. Yup. Everyone.) There is a class blog, which will start to shed some definite information on the course as posts accumulate there. I should warn you that the studio environment is something that can't translate easily to written notes, and seems to be the primary focus of the coursework. I'll do what I can to share that with you.
As an example of the studio work, we tackled a seemingly-basic problem:
Say you have a jar of jellybeans, in five colors. You want to pick out the blue ones. The problem has two facets--One, to isolate EVERY blue jellybean; Two, to isolate ONLY blue beans. We split into groups of five or six people, and thought of a few solutions, but the real illustration came during the debriefing. It turns out we'd just solved a classic problem in information retrieval--Precision vs. Recall. In essence, the need for fidelity (only blue jellybeans) and completeness (every blue jellybean) thread themselves throughout the information field, but in this particular example of information design, we found an easy, metaphorical way of approaching the problem, without the seemingly-overwhelming "Go build a search engine."
I get the feeling that most good information design will feel like that--in fact, one of the best quotes from David McCandless (Who gave this TED talk, another thing we watched in class) is that "Design is about solving problems, and providing elegant solutions." Elegance is something that's hard to find in poorly-designed information, but it's completely vital. Well-designed information experiences can convey concepts that would be otherwise hard to grasp, as in Charles & Ray Eames' classic Powers of Ten. Even though the video was made back in 1977, it's still one of the clearest examples of scientific orders of magnitude available.
Powers of Ten is noteworthy for another reason. Information changes, of course, and viewing Powers of Ten quickly led us to a discussion about the expansion of scientific knowledge since it was made. Though it's a digression, it's important to note that even "false" information can provide a window into the past. I'm reminded of an incident when I was working for the Boston Early Music Festival on L'Incoronazione di Poppea. The translator had been struggling with the word "Fiaccole," which in modern Italian simply means "torch"--not exactly the most evocative language. However, the breakthrough came when she found an Italian-English dictionary dating from the early 17th century, "little falling stars" being a significantly more elegant translation, and a fitting description of Poppea's eyes. Though it wouldn't be a correct translation of modern Italian, it was perfect for Monteverdi's use of the language in 1643.
Once again, it all comes down to "Difference that makes a Difference." The next few months should be fun--Keep an eye out here, and I'll keep posting each week.
What differences have made a difference in your information design and usage? Let us know in the comments.