Peter Bogaards

Peter Bogaards

Our field hasn't avoided the vicious grasp of information overload, but thanks to people like Peter Bogaards, we stand a fighting chance of keeping up. Peter's blog InfoDesign is a staple for information designers and information architects alike. Speaking of which: what's the difference between these two fields? Peter has a different take than we normally hear on this side of the pond.
Woops, almost forgot: Peter's day job is Head of Information Design at Razorfish Amsterdam.

-- Lou Rosenfeld

Lou: Let's first discuss InfoDesign, an indispensable resource for many of us. It obviously requires a lot of work. How do you find the time to maintain it? What's in it for you? Is this part of a plan for world domination?

Peter: When the InfoDesign mailing list got started in 1994 by Yuri Engelhardt, I was already involved with the Web and perceived the Web as a perfect integration of information design, hypertext, and user interface design. As a Web addendum to the (moderated) mailing list, I had the idea of an "epicenter": push and pull for information designers. Due to various reasons, I got started but lost interest along the way. However, at the end of 1999 I found out that even without updating the site, people remained interested in it. I took it upon myself to re-energize InfoDesign and turn it into a sort of blog. In some sense, InfoDesign is just my set of bookmarks which I share.

On average I spend about one hour daily on maintenance and development. Mostly early in the mornings or evenings. At the end of the month, a little more time is needed for updating the archive. All manually! I still have the ambition to turn InfoDesign into a digital epicenter.

My other motives for doing InfoDesign are related to discovering the hidden rules of community building on the Web. I have learned a great deal about net relationships, shared interests, browser issues, and editorial design; InfoDesign is a great playground for all of these. Also, I regularly get positive feedback, which is motivating in itself. Recently, someone suggested improvements for my JavaScripts.

Lou: How do you make sure that there is a constant flow of news flashes that are interesting enough for the field of information design?

Peter: Like many of us, I visit many blogs including antenna, Lucdesk and Brightly Colored Food. I also have a pretty good idea of upcoming events and interesting people to follow and sites to go to. Due to this contextual knowledge, I'm able to select what might be interesting. Also, I get link suggestions from our community. And, as is common practice among blog editors, I borrow findings from others. Finally, I'm a power user of services like Spyonit and NetMind.

Lou: What are your plans for the service? Tomalak's Realm almost bit the dust recently, though the web design community pitched in at the eleventh hour to save it. Can you avoid the same outcome?

Peter: I hope so. I know that because InfoDesign is a volunteer project, it has many weak spots. However, due to InfoDesign I have a structure and a Web place to collect appropriate references to share with our community. In the future, I hope to integrate more technology in order to ease the maintenance and to extend its service level. I guess I follow Kevin Kelly's rules.

Lou: Let's turn to information design itself. All kinds of people are entering the information design arena. What types of education and experiences are appropriate for information designers?

Peter: Everybody with a background and experience related to people and their communication can become an information designer. If you have a passion for the motives, needs, emotions, cognition, circumstances and values of people, you are more than half way there. There are many disciplines which focus on specific aspects of people. For instance, due to my background in instructional design, I am always interested in ways in which human learning processes are empowered by external objects.

Lou: If understanding people gets you half way there, what's the other half of the battle?

Peter: The other half is a deep understanding of the two unique properties of computer-mediated environments: connectivity and computation. Connectivity is the ability of humans and machines to exchange information with every node in the network. Computation of these environments relate to the automated transformation of symbol systems. Highly structured, electronic documents and components are key to this. Their structure, information, and presentation are the parameters with which humans and machines interact, exchange and manipulate. Being able to use the full design space of these properties and understanding that data and code are very different things, both will make great information designers.

Lou: Are information architects making a mistake of mapping out a new field when information design is already around? Or, put another way, do you see significant differences between IA and ID?

Peter: In some ways, I see the differences between IA and ID as mostly historical and geographical. Although ID has been around for more than 25 years, it did not get a lot of public exposure. For instance, research in the design aspects of forms has not generated a great deal of interest. That is, until the Florida ballot of course. Due to the proliferation of digital information in general and the Web in particular, design issues related to turning data into information have suddenly become relevant.

When Wurman coined the term "information architect", many people decided it was relevant for the structure and presentation of Web sites. Especially, when the amount of HTML documents exploded, research from library and information science became relevant. From my perspective information design seems to be non-US and has been situated in the UK, Australia, and the Netherlands mostly. In the end, there is not that much difference between the two. Seeing ID as related to form and IA to structure is not my point of view.

Lou: And just where exactly do you see ID going? Although it's been around longer than IA, it doesn't seem to have a permanent "home" in academia or business just yet, nor does its professional society seem to be particularly active.

Peter: Information design has been in academia and business for quite some time. For historical reasons, practitioners of ID have been focusing their attention mainly on the print medium (e.g. Ronald Easterby and Harm Zwaga. 1984. Information Design: The Design and Evaluation of Signs and Printed Material). Some universities have a PhD program (The University of Reading's Department of Typography and Graphic Communication) and some hold conferences (the International Institute for Information Design). Also, academic programs such as Saul Carliner's at Bentley have been established in the US.

Now granted, academic programs have not received much attention, nor have they been very much in favor of technology in general or the Web in specific. On the other hand, if you are interested in information design and follow their trails of thought, a lot relevant knowledge and experience can be found. Conventional information designers seem to have been swamped by the Web, just as the hypertext community has. They are right in saying that information design is relevant to much more than just the Web.

Personally, I see information design within an electronic media context as a meta-discipline moving towards the conceptual design of computer-mediated information spaces.

Lou: Speaking of meta-disciplines, information designers are participating more and more in projects which are interdisciplinary in nature. What value do information design skills add to such projects? What challenges do information designers to work on? And how do information designers make sure they communicate adequately with people of different backgrounds and perspectives?

Peter: The complexity level of Web projects has increased significantly in the last several years. Many people are getting involved, with different objectives, backgrounds, roles and languages in constantly changing contexts. Disciplines such as business modeling, experience design, object technology, and management need to work together under severe time constraints in a coordinated fashion. In order to achieve this, sharing a process, language and knowledge are necessary. Documents are the instruments to capture this sharing at a group and organization level. Due to our "immature" practice, a lot of re-inventing of wheels happens. Scalable, flexible and extensible documents hardly exist. Information designers need to be able to contribute to improving communication by applying their expertise to this type of documentation. Not only for clients, but also for internal purposes.

Also, there is a need to integrate experience design processes into more formal methodologies for the design and development of computer mediated environments. A proprietary UCD method such as OVID is trying to incorporate aspects such as visual design, branding and usability. From a technology perspective, related standards like extended UML and XML will become relevant for information designers as well. As Paul Kahn just stated about information architecture: "An information architect must understand text coding systems, such as SGML/XML, as well as the possibilities of database storage and retrieval". Quite something else than "just" site maps and page schematics.

Lou: Amen. Thanks for the interview Peter, and please, please, please keep up the great work with InfoDesign!

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