diversification of minds - conversation in processes
design for communities

Tokyo, 07.10 - 09.10 1999

10 07 am<Concepts of Information Design Strategies>
Loretta Staples, U dot I, Ann Arbor, USA

Information Design & the Cult of Neutrality

Different subcultures constitute the professional practice of information design, many of them connected by a dominant belief in an idealized neutral standard derived from evidence gleaned by the behavioral sciences. These information designers adopt and popularize shared norms about the nature of information processing and human perception, norms that embrace concepts like 'ease-of-use' and 'simplicity.' By not closely scrutinizing the cultural context of such norms, however--and thus their relativity--information designers can unwittingly enforce graphic standards that ignore significant populations. These standards operate as a kind of 'graphic imperialism,' wherein local expressions are subsumed by the standardized visual language of global corporate capitalism. By analyzing the emergence and propagation of such standards we can begin to understand how information designers worldwide contribute to the creation of a monolithic 'global' identity that neutralizes regional difference.

An example: different cultures evolve different cartographic traditions. While all inform, the graphic language of some become adopted as international standards. What accounts for the prevalence of certain standards over others?

The illustrative style of the 'Ise' map ingeniously combines a naturalistic, three-dimensional landscape with diagrammatic elements that extend beyond the picture's boundaries. In contrast, the New York City subway map presents a reductive diagram devoid of illustrative elements. Massimo Vignelli's 1977 design derives its visual strategy from that established by Henry Beck's 1922 redesign of the London Underground map--a design that remains virtually unchanged to this day. Beck's design continues to serve as a prototype for the depiction of major transit systems around the world. Its visual language shares many of the formal attributes that have characterized 20th century Western graphic design--extensive use of color coding, reductive geometries, and the elimination of detail in favor of schematic presentation--attributes that characterize as well the visual norms of 20th century corporate identity. This particular coincidence--between a given graphic language and standards of corporate representation--suggests an underlying economic impetus that empowers particular graphic languages over others.

Culturally sensitive design strategies must begin with an awareness of prevalent graphic norms, knowledge of their social and economic origins, and a critical reassessment of their suitability as a proposed solution.

In this age of 'global citizenship,' for instance, what visual languages are truly appropriate for representing 'global' concepts?

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