Information Design and Why It Matters

Robert Jacobson, SRI Consulting

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 21, 1997


Information design is the newest of the design disciplines and, like a volcano in formation, we can see in its convulsions the way in which a profession grows. In and of itself, information design is important to its practitioners, of course; but as a mirror of our times, when the crafting of messages and meaning is so central to our lives, it is not only important: information design is essential.

My talk will focus on the moral as well as professional dilemmas facing information designers today, and how designers resolve or transcend these impediments to practice. My focus is not on technique but rather how this emerging community of professionals -- information designers -- begins to define itself as a community, enunciates rules of practice and ethics that become canons, and embraces (or rejects) critical theory as a way to systematize their practice and pass it along to the next generation of professionals.

(Excerpted from the editor's introduction to INFORMATION DESIGN, Robert Jacobson, editor, MIT Press, 1997)

Human history is a continuing story of information being systematically designed and conveyed for the purpose of sharing perceptions and forcing conclusions. In our own time, Joseph Goebels twisting Germany around the stark Nazi finger and the cartoon reality of the Gulf War as seen on American TV bear stark testimony to this possibility. But information design is traceable to more distant roots: the prehistorical mythologies and tales told by priests, tyrants, and dramatists were the first efforts to subjectively craft human experience.

What makes the current discussion of information design exciting is its emphasis on edification and commutativity. Edification is the process of personal enlightenment. Commutativity is the process of mutual change. Contemporary information designers seek to edify more than persuade, to exchange more than to foist upon. We have finally learned that the issuer of designed information is as likely as the information's intended recipient to be changed by it, for better or worse.

This new awareness is forced on us by ever more powerful technologies of communication. These media dramatically highlight and shorten the links among those who generate information designs and those who receive and act on designed information. It is getting so that all of us, all of the time, are both designers of information and consumers, whether we know it or not.

Given that information design is so pervasive, it behooves us to to be caring and deliberate in the application of this discipline. That is the purpose of this book: both cautionary and hopeful, Information Design offers visions of how information design can be practiced diligently and ethically, for the benefit of information consumers as well as producers.


Bob Jacobson is a senior consultant at SRI Consulting's Business Intelligence Center, in Menlo Park, CA. Prior to joining SRI-C he ran his own company, a virtual-worlds-applications startup, Worldesign Inc., in Seattle. Worldesign was a a spinoff from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory, or HIT Lab, which Bob cofounded and staffed as associate director, at the Washington Technology Center located on the campus of the University of Washington.

From 1981 through 1989, Bob was principal consultant and staff director of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, specializing in telecommunications and information policy. His book, AN "OPEN APPROACH" TO INFORMATION POLICYMAKING (Ablex, 1989), describes the iterative planning process applied to information policymaking -- prelude to design. Bob has been a Fulbright Research Scholar studying telecommunications and economic development in Scandinavia and an active member of the Public Access movement in the 1970s, when many of the same promises and pitfalls now associated with computer communications were associated with community video. "The parallels are striking," he says.

His B.A. (sociology of mass communications), M.A (television studies), and Ph.D. (urban planning/design) were all earned at UCLA. He also holds an M.A. (communications management) from the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, "a booby prize for taking information design too seriously for a doctoral student in a behaviorally oriented communications program. It's time that craft found a place in the lexicon of knowledge."


Titles and abstracts for all years are available by year and by speaker.

For more information about HCI at Stanford see

Overview Degrees Courses Research Faculty FAQ