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Wednesday, November 5, 2003

What is Information?
In the past, designers didn't talk much about information. The focus was on the physical artifacts, and information was just part of the object. Now, information is the object. Information seems more complex, rich, and diverse now. We look at information from the point of view of someone using the information, and it is this perspective that controls much of the experience.

And now, as Dick Buchanan said, we need "a little bit of a lecture on the history of Western culture." Some 300 years ago, there was a great effort by folks like Descartes, Spinoza, and Newton to understand the nature of things, to understand the principles of first things. Then came a period of trying to figure out how our minds work, attempting to delve into the faculties of the mind. Then, around 1890, what we say and what we do became the focus of thought, our words and our deeds came to be examined. We are still in this period and it shows no signs of slowing down. Western thought is now dominated by experience and expression. We're in a time when how we experience things is the key to how we think. Even discussions about things we can't experience are framed this way, such as death. A similar period was from the time of Cicero up until the time of St. Augustine.

How does this relate to information? In experience and expression, information is key. Information is an ambiguous word that either means data or the facts built on that data. We are obsessed by facts even though they are often ambiguous and contradictory.

We deal with the constant bombardment of information we get daily in two ways: we find connections among those facts, and we build principles.

Dick broke information down like this:

  • Data: 1 term, meaningless. "blue" or "seven"
  • Facts: 2 terms, a sentence. "It's blue."
  • Connections: 3 terms. "A is B. B is C. A is C."
  • Principles: N terms. Lots of connections.

Design, as Ralph Kaplan famously said, is all about making connections. Designers are judged on the quality of their connections. Facts are only useful when they are connected into a coherent argument. Knowledge depends on connections. Principles help you understand many connections. Wisdom depends on understanding principles and is about being able to compare conflicting principles and to make decisions between them.

There are three areas of information in design:

  • Information architecture: large structures of information
  • Information design: specific areas of information
  • Information typography: fine tuning in very small detail

Related entry: What is Data?

posted at 12:26 AM in design theory | comments (1) | trackback (0)


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