A Deep Dive Into Infographic Design: Q&A with Steven Heller and Rick Landers

Are you interested in learning how the best infographics were developed? The new book Infographic Designers' Sketchbooks is for you. In this Q&A, authors Steven Heller and Rick Landers discuss the significance of data visualization.

Way back in the Stone Ages of the Internet at the beginning of my design career, I created information graphics for a science and technology magazine. After more than six years of whittling down the complicated breakthroughs of scientific research, I'd amassed a huge collection of data visualized into well-thought-out isotypes.

So, when I heard about the new book Infographic Designers' Sketchbooks (Princeton Architectural Press), a masterful collaboration between prolific AIGA Medalist Steven Heller and designer Rick Landers, I craved its release like a hot dog at a baseball game! I had to have one.

In Infographic Designers' Sketchbooks, Heller and Landers curate the creative processes of the most brilliant practitioners in data visualization, from Christopher Cannon, creator of the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, to Massimo Vignelli, mastermind behind the 1972 New York Subway map.

In my interview, Heller and Landers offer their insights and opinion on a range of infographic issues.

There was a time when organizing data into a chart, table or graph was not considered "real" design. With the rising popularity of data visualization, the proliferation of infographics has transformed the way we communicate. Why the shift and is it a sustainable vehicle for communication?

Steven Heller: I beg to differ. Information has been a subset of graphic design at least since the 1920s. Whether or not it began with Otto Neurath is arguable. But by the 1930s artists like Gerd Arntz and Rudolf Modley were using pictorial symbols to tell data-based stories. In the 1940s, Fortune magazine began using some amazing data visualizations and by the 1970s Time, Newsweek and The New York Times were as well. Times design director Louis Silverstein developed the "sides of beef" concept of graphic data. So, I don't think it's a shift as much as a greater push to save time for people who are inundated with layers of information. Oh yes, I think Edward Tufte had something to do with encouraging this push through his books and workshops. Is it sustainable? It has been for decades.

Rick Landers: The result of this shift seems to be closely connected to the role of technology in our lives and how we are interacting with content. Technology can give us the opportunity to control the amount of content we wish to digest. When used properly, the presentation of information design through a digital source can help break the content down into more digestible pieces, especially through animation, thus allowing the data to be read quickly. As to whether it's sustainable will be up to those providing the content as well as the designers to ensure that an infographic is the correct vehicle for delivering that content ­– and not just a superfluous means for doing what is en vogue.

Data visualization seems to be more than just a trend; it appears to be evolving into a real movement within both business and design. Do you agree or disagree?

SH: It's a groundswell – a means of helping people understand or at least navigate through the swell of information. If you go back to the corporate report designers of the 1960s, a lot of charts and graphs were used. Thanks to the influence of Nigel Holmes at Time, they became more entertaining.

RL: I agree that it is becoming more and more present due to the amount of data that is being recorded and collected in all aspects of business and life. However, the practice of wanting to display data in the form of an infographic seems to be very much a trend. Designers need to continue to educate clients on when to use a device like an infographic. We have access to all of this great data and content and it's very powerful information. How that information is edited, used and expressed is critical, otherwise it can be confusing, misinterpreted, or even worse, wrong.

The digital tools available to many designers are incredibly robust and vast. What did you learn about the value of sketching from the designers featured in your new book? Why was it important to include those sketches?

SH: Some designers play on screen by setting up their templates and parameters. Others play with pencil and paper. The sketches in our book come from many sources ­– Post-its to tablets. Sketching is a necessary part of the creative process and it is the improvisational component that leads to refinement. It's wonderful to go to a museum and see the preliminary work that leads up to a great masterwork. Likewise, it's always humbling to see how complex work is conceived in design and data visualization.

RL: Many designers still use analog sketching as a way to focus on the challenge at hand – mindfully not being distracted by the computer in the early stages of brainstorming. They use the computer as a tool to simply create the final expression. These analog sketches illustrate the thought process of the designer. It's often not a linear experience and you can see a great range in their exploration. Designers who use the computer to do foundational sketches have a better sense of what they're trying to execute from the outset. The computer allows them to quickly iterate on that idea and create lots of variations. We also saw designers using code to prototype expressions of the data to establish the base gesture and then visually fine-tune it.

Infographics seem to be everywhere. When is the development and use of an infographic not appropriate?

SH: When it does not add anything to the subject. Sometimes this is done, but that's the nature of filling up space.

RL: You see this a lot online with the popularity of those long-scrolling digital designs that take lists of data and makes them "pretty." This is not information design. A designer needs to make sure an infographic is the best vehicle for delivering the content; that the form of an infographic will make the content easier to understand versus a single paragraph of clearly written prose.

Which solution featured in Infographic Designers' Sketchbooks took your breath away and why?

SH: It's tempting to answer this question by singling out specific work. But I'm impressed by everything. To rephrase the question: What example gives me joy? Having Massimo Vignelli's NYC Subway map/diagram sketches, especially since he passed away this year.

RL: The work from Giorgia Lupi at Accurat really embodies what I think makes for great information design. There are layers to the expression she creates that as a reader you uncover the longer you experience her work. The visual devices Lupi uses are very academic and have a smart wink to them. Laura Cattaneo's work for Il Sole has a beautiful and rich density. It's a combination of precision and illustrative expression that is really inviting. You want to dive in and learn more.

What are some examples of the best infographics you've seen lately? Share in the comments section.

Related post: Creativity, Collaboration and Career Success: Q&A with Gail Anderson