The Information Design Handbook

*** May152010

This book does not live up to its title, Information Design Handbook. One of many similar definitions to be found online states that a handbook is:

A concise manual or reference book providing specific information or instruction about a subject or place.

Because this book contains little actual instruction and isn’t thorough enough or organized in such a way as to serve as a reference, it would be better described with a title such as “Introduction to the Field of Information Design.” Perhaps a little less sexy, but definitely more accurate.

The first chapter, “A Need For Information Design,” demonstrates this misnomer right away. If I just spent $25 on a book called “Information Design Handbook” I probably don’t need to be convinced that information design is important.

Definition and History

In Chapter 2, the authors take an interesting approach to establishing a definition of information design, by providing a collection of quotes from pracitioners, including this straightforward contribution from Nathan Shedroff:

“Information design addresses the organization and presentation of data: its transformation into valuable, meaningful information.”

(An aside: While his definition seems reasonable enough, a peek at Mr. Shedroff’s website is quite a shock, with little in the way of organization at all, and a completely inaccessible navigation menu.)

Chapter 3 presents landmarks in the evolution of information design, from cave drawings to the first website.

Section 2: Principles in Information Design

Chapters 4 through 6 give a quick-read overview of many of the principles of information design and relevant theories, such as difference threshold (the “minimum amount of change required in any type of sensory stimulus for an individual to take notice”) and Miller’s Magic Number (the idea that humans can hold approximately 7 chunks of information in short-term memory). The authors cover a lot of territory, and give succinct overviews of many topics that entire books have been written about.

What little instruction is provided in this book takes the form of “Quick Tips” scattered throughout, which are collections of somewhat vague, rapid-fire advice, such as:

“Group objects to create contextual relationsships. Use contrasts to separate ideas…Use grid, flow-lines, and typography to create familiarity in layouts”

Section 3: Case Studies

Chapters 7 through 9 present various case studies. The provided examples are diverse, ranging from type design to game design to wayfinding design. While some are more compelling than others, overall I think they would have more impact if they were incorporated into the “Principles” section of the book, reinforcing the concepts discussed with “in the wild” examples.

What’s in it for web designers?

All of the principles touched on in Section 2 apply just as much to the web as to any other medium. While this book provides only short overviews, it may give the curious web designer a starting point for deeper investigation. Unfortunately, most of the websites included in the case studies are Flash-based sites that, while engaging and attractive, are more like interactive art projects than solutions to information design problems.


For an introduction to the wide-ranging field of information design, this book is good choice. It is well-organized, nicely laid out, and gives a taste of many facets of the field. For a handboook that provides actionable instruction or serves as a thorough reference, look elsewhere.

Respond to this review

Author(s)Jenn and Ken Visocky O'Grady
PublisherHOW Books

No comments yet…Be the first!

Comments are closed for this article.