Book Review: Katz’ Designing Information is Uneven but Helpful for Some

Designing Information: Human factors and common sense in information design satisfies on some levels, frustrates on others

Joel Katz’s Designing Information: Human factors and common sense in information design tackles visual information design in the North American context. The content is most useful for student graphic designers, and the knowledge he imparts wanders between useful for readers who are completely unfamiliar with basic design concepts and useful for readers who have specific domain knowledge.

Designing Information does not, to any great extent, address the concept of information design within documentation, and it was disappointing to stumble into the chapter titled “Documents” only to find it contained detailed reference notes for the previous chapters.

Technical writers should find the book useful for illuminating certain terminologies and concepts that may enable them to interact more effectively with technical illustrators and graphic designers. The book also serves a good starting point for writers looking to branch into visual information design—the book’s strongest feature is its extensive inclusion of references and additional sources.

Designing Information focuses largely on single page graphically displayed information, whether that’s graphs, maps, or traffic signs, etc. It covers the important elements of design, such as lines, font, and color, etc. More advanced concepts discussed by the author include mnemonic notation, synecdoche, and numerical integrity.

Throughout the book Katz encourages readers to think about the human perspective in visual information design, and the concepts around wayfinding addressed in Chapter 5 are particularly noteworthy. As a user of maps, I have a built-in expectation that they will point me in the right direction, and frustration when they don’t. The relatively recent design development of providing users with heads-up maps instead of north-up maps is something I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t specifically considered. As a user, I find heads-up maps much more intuitive. Likewise, the decision to design subway maps using stops instead of miles as a unit of measurement isn’t something I had previously considered, but it makes sense. These insights, culled from real-world information design experience, reflect the expertise I was hoping for when I picked up the book.

The book is an easy read—as a tome on visual information design, it is image-heavy, and offers a number of original, better, best illustrations on real-world concept designs and implementations. Readers who aren’t forgiving of imperfection in published works, however, may be irritated by the numerous typographical errors. These are largely relegated to image captions—to the extent that some images are completely mislabeled—but headings and quotations also contain some obvious errors.

The author’s writing style is conversational and at times I appreciated this—the book isn’t boring. At other times, the conversational tone feels too informal. For example, when speaking about pictograms Katz references a Barcelonian sign for cleaning up after dogs: “Its drawing, however, might suggest something very different if taken out of context. For example, if your dog poops, smash your fist into it; or, if walking with a dog, stop to admire piles of little cannonballs.” Katz also sporadically wanders from third person to first person. In places the book feels like a personal story (“I have been…”), and in other places it feels like a lecture (“We can see…”).

Overall, I am not incredibly eager to recommend this book. I found it lacking in a number of areas, particularly given its robust price point (over $50 USD on Amazon). It works well as a text to be skimmed in an afternoon to fill personal knowledge gaps, but it wasn’t a book with which I felt I had to spend a lot of time. That being said, as previously noted, it does contain numerous references to additional material that will likely prove useful, the caveat to which is that some time may be spent typing addresses such as http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/27/nyregion/new-ny-subway-map.html?scp=1&sq=an%20overhaul%20of%20%an%20underground%20icon&st=cse into a web browser and those link destinations may no longer exist. (There are ebooks available through Google Play and Apple iBooks. Links may or may not be clickable/copy-and-paste-able in ebooks.)

Title: Designing Information: Human Factors and Common Sense in Information Design
Author:  Joel Katz
Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (October 2, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 111834197X
ISBN-13: 978-1118341971

Stacey Plowright

Stacey Plowright is the current Communications Manager for STC Toronto. A soon-to-be graduate of the Technical Communication program at Seneca College, she has deep roots in both publishing and customer support. Stacey advocates strongly for clear, concise communication and seeks to provide knowledge to those who need it when they need it. She can be found on Google+, and through LinkedIn.

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