Information Design. For Dummies?

This week’s Confabulator Cafe topic is how to avoid confusing your reader when using a large cast of characters.

So it’s about managing complexity.

In other words, information design.

Information design is one of those meta-meta [0] terms that can make your brain bleed. It’s like water to a fish— all around you, but you barely notice. It’s similar to the concept of linguistic framing.

But rather than bore you all to tears with a learned and rambling discourse into the fundamentals and practicalities of the discipline, I will instead point you to three resources who can explain it much better than I can.

Richard Saul Wurman is the author of Information Anxiety, a book I encountered the first time I applied to library school [1]. I wish I knew what happened to my copy of the first edition, sadly now lost to time. Wurman explains the art of consciously choosing methods of presenting information to influence how the reader processes it.

Second I recommend, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (2nd edition or greater, please) by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. We have all suffered through poorly designed websites; Rosenfeld and Morville do more than tell you where to put the navigation menus, they explain how to make that decision based on the goals of the website and on the goals of the users. The do an excellent job leading you through the evaluation and design process, and also how to sell the concept of information design to the people who write the checks.

The last book I want to recommend is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. McCloud deconstructs the comic book form and possibilities, showing how comics work with the human brain to tell a dynamic story out of a series of still images.

I hope these concepts have obvious applications to technical writing, but you might also imagine how they might apply to fiction writing as well. You can determine your story’s structure to give the reader access to information at the right time, let it build in her mind, and then present her with surprise twists and turns. You may even become the darling of adjunct professors of comparative literature in colleges everywhere.

[0] Meta$FOO is information about $FOO. Metainformation is information about information. You are now deep into the library geek zone. You may be eaten by a grue.
[1] I was a failed library school applicant years before I was a successful one. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

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