Information Design: An Orientation for Editors

Information Design: An Orientation for Editors

Presentation by Linda Urban
Forum Organized by Susan Carlson Greene and Karen Asbelle
Notes by Wendy Moseley
October 9, 2007

Linda Urban, an independent communications consultant who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, shared her twenty-plus years of experience in information design at our October forum. In conversation with the audience of editors with a wide range of experience, Ms. Urban's first premise was, "You probably know more about information design than you realize."

Editing and information design are interwoven, according to Urban. She explained that there are many definitions of "information design," and asking, "what is information design?" is similar to asking "what is editing?" The aspects of information design include the structural patterns and chunks, the visual, the structural organization, and the writing style. In essence, information design "is the shape the verbal information should take to communicate." Because information design includes language, organization, and structure, as well as visual design, it involves just what editors do: reworking content. When there is a clear design, editing helps ensure that it is followed. When there is no clear design, editors often help find or clarify one.

One of Urban's handouts, titled "Creating Usable Information," instructed information designers to:

  • Develop an information plan
  • Understand who the users are and what they need
  • Identify the content for all users and the users for all content
  • Identify the purpose and objectives of each section of information presented
  • Involve an editor!

No matter what type of editing you do, copyediting, substantive, developmental, or technical, thinking in terms of information design can enhance your work. You can also extend your client base and increase your options by understanding that "you know more about information design than you realize."

Editorial design relates directly to the content and is language-based. It can be contrasted with visual design, which relates to format, but editorial and visual design often overlap, and editors really are important in overall information design. Editors can confidently assert that they are experienced in information design if they understand that the aspects of information design are central to what they do as editors.

Urban offered ideas for approaching a project from an information design perspective.

Make sure you are designing the right thing. Know the requirements, including the intent or goal of the information, the purpose of the information and the "deliverables," and know the audience. These requirements drive the overall design. Although the shape, scope, and approach of the communication may differ depending on whether it is an article, book, Web page, Web site, series of books, and so on, good design is a matter of contrast, alignment, repetition, and proximity. For example, with a well-designed topic in a Help system, users can tell quickly if the topic contains what they need, scan to locate the information, quickly skim and then settle to read, and move on to additional and related information if they choose. The same should be true with a well-designed article, book, or Web site, even though each information type follows its own pattern.

Remember that editorial design relates directly to content. Some decisions are language-based, such as specific wording and the style to be used. Some decisions are "architecture-based," such as what information pieces will be included, and in what order. Editorial decisions are often the writing rules in a style guide. Visual design involves the overall shape of the information, the look of a printed page. Visual design works with editorial design, specifying how each piece of information will look. Visual design includes decisions about fonts, typeface, how elements are spaced and aligned, and what graphic elements will be used and where they will appear. Visual design decisions become format styles and tags in cascading style sheets and templates--the Web equivalents of what makes formatting possible in Word, a computer style sheet attached to or associated with a Web page. In information architecture circles, the information without any design elements is called a "wire frame." Visual design completes the page layout or grid.

Understand that while graphic design is its own discipline, editors can do some visual information design without being graphic designers. Be aware of and use the basic visual design principles, and know when to turn to a graphic designer, or at least to someone with strong visual design skills, when necessary. Urban recommends Robin Williams' book, The Non-Designers' Design Book, as a great tool to learn the basic principles of visual design. Urban also recommends Dynamics in Document Design (Karen Shriver); Information Architecture, Blueprints for the Web (Christina Wodtke); and Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville).

Be aware that although there is now a trend toward separation of content and presentation in technical and computer information design, many companies are still working out the kinks that this separation can cause. Urban is ambivalent about the trend, and not certain it will last. The push to divorce the two is based on the fact that content may potentially be used in quite varied ways-- brochure, cell phone, Web site, or other format--and the expectation is that somebody other than the editor will create the look for each different reuse.

No matter what type of editing you do, copyediting, substantive, developmental, or technical, thinking in terms of information design can enhance your work. You can also extend your client base and increase your options by understanding that "you know more about information design than you realize."

Linda Urban is reachable through her company, Linda Urban Communications, LLC



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