Why, in the Information Age, do our biggest problems all have to do with information?
We have too much of it. It comes at the wrong time, in the wrong package, at the wrong intervals, in the wrong format. Or the information itself is just plain wrong. The result? We lack understanding.
Which is why Richard Saul Wurman, 64, an architect, author, and conference organizer, has created "Understanding USA." The result of a yearlong crusade on Wurman's part, this 324-page, graphic-rich book is designed to provide Americans with the right information, in the right format, in the right amount. This is a book with a mission: to enable people to grasp the world they live in — including everything from the electoral process and the federal debt to health care and poverty — quickly, easily, and entertainingly.
Wurman enlisted the help of 12 "information architects" (a term that he coined), who worked with him to produce 13 chapters of wide-ranging material. He also generated support from a list of blue-chip backers: America Online, General Motors, Hearst Communications, Intel, the Markle Foundation, Mattel, Ovations/United HealthCare, SmartPlanet, Steelcase, USWeb/CKS, and Xerox. With substantial backing from these organizations, Wurman was able to structure the $1 million project so that the book is downloadable for free on the Web (www.understandingusa.com). It is also for sale in hard-copy form at Barnes & Noble bookstores, on Amazon.com, and through Ingram Book Co.
In a book filled with useful information, no section is more compelling than the chapter that decodes the mysteries of information technology and the information economy. The chapter was developed by Michael Donovan, 56, and Nancye Green, 52, founders and principals of Donovan and Green, a design firm known for its information-architecture and branded-environment work. "We learned that telling a story through data is a struggle," says Green. "Our job was to draw people into caring about the subject. We worked hard to put ourselves in the shoes of users. We asked ourselves, 'Does this mean anything? Do I care? How does this connect to me?' People don't care about cold facts. They care about pictures or stories that are connected to themselves in some way. That's what learning is all about. That's what leads to understanding."
In an interview with Fast Company, Green outlined her thoughts on the art of converting raw, unfiltered information into useful, accessible understanding.
The story unfolds. The first step is to create an appealing picture — one that motivates the reader to start down a path. In the pages that we designed for "Understanding USA," the story of technology unfolds question by question over the course of several pages, and it ends with information about how people feel about that story. So we created hierarchies of information. The problem with most instruction manuals is that they have no hierarchy: People don't know where to start.
The endgame: storytelling, communication, and connecting. Information is the destination, and design — color, line, typography — is how we arrive there. That process always starts with a question. If you're designing an instruction manual, the question may be "How do you drive a car?" — which is a different question from "How do you drive a car in a rainstorm?" If you're sitting in a car in a rainstorm, you need to know how to turn on the windshield wipers. You don't want that information to be buried on page 94 under "Dashboard."
We learn by relating the new to the familiar. Good design takes you in incremental steps from the familiar to the new. Like a good teacher, design should engage you, involve you, and help you make connections between what you know and what you don't know. Information architecture enables people to draw on what they already know. A good map, for example, provides a frame of reference and then quickly shows you how to move from the recognizable (the Atlantic Ocean, with Pennsylvania to the left of it) to the unfamiliar (a small country road). In other words, good design offers a familiar set of visual tools that you can use to access a world that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.
The hardest part is staying honest. What you get rid of is just as important as what you keep. In information design, there's always a huge amount of data that you could include, so you need to select carefully, to deal consciously with complexity, and to keep it simple. The question of what not to include must guide you at all times. Too often, people don't commit to what they want to say, so they have a hard time communicating it. Define what's important, and design becomes simple.
Jill Rosenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Richard Saul Wurman (email@example.com) or Nancy Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) by email.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.