The War On Information Clutter

Racing to do your taxes, you reach for Form 1040--and find instructions so arcane that you mutter a vengeful curse at the Internal Revenue Service. Or, trying out a new computer program, your eyes cross at the string of commands it requires--and at the two-inch-thick manual purporting to be in English. Or, checking a statement from your stockbroker, you're staggered by the profusion of numbers, symbols, and abbreviations, all in tiny print. These are horror stories of the Information Age, the graphical counterpart of designing products for excess. Too often, what we want to find in documents, manuals, graphs, maps, and computer screens is all but lost in a mishmash of visual junk. "It drives people crazy, costs them money, and it's all unnecessary," says Alan Siegel, chairman of Siegel & Gale Inc., a New York corporate identity and graphic communications company. "People have the right to clarity in what they read."

EASY SKIMMING. Fortunately, that right is now being recognized. A discipline has emerged that calls for designing the display of information in much the same way as consumer-friendly products are designed: for lucidity as much as style. Called information graphics, or "infographics," it's a new approach that's tapping wisdom accumulated over the centuries by master typographers, artists, and mapmakers.

Information designers are tackling the sophisticated and the mundane. They're creating ways of graphing the floods of data that supercomputers spew forth, thus detecting fleeting trends and patterns. They're also remaking everyday documents, from sports pages to utility bills. Pacific Bell has hired Richard S. Wurman, author of Information Anxiety, to revitalize its yellow pages. Among Wurman's innovations: dividing the directory's 2,300 categories into large groups for easy skimming. The IRS has used Siegel & Gale to make its forms less confusing to taxpayers.

The guru of the information-design movement is Edward R. Tufte, a statistician and professor of political science at Yale University. His main message: Don't strip graphics of information and gussy them up just to reach the TV-addled. Instead, make every mark on the page carry meaning. That way, people can learn more with less effort. Indeed, his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, champions lucidity above all and attacks any form of visual clutter as "chartjunk." A common example: fake three-dimensional perspectives added to otherwise simple bar charts, which distract the eye and add no useful information.

In his latest book, Envisioning Information, Tufte has collected striking examples of how multidimensional information, such as choreographic notation, has been displayed on the two-dimensional surface of paper--what he calls "flatland." But his influence--and that of infographics in general--is spreading quickly to the computer screen, the new visual frontier.

SET IN STONE. As computers grow more complicated, tremendous energy is being spent to make them communicate better with people visually. IBM called Tufte in to help with the look of its Presentation Manager, a graphical program that employs colors. But Tufte says he's more enamored of NeXT Computer Inc.'s black-and-white workstation. The NeXT screen has much higher resolution, Tufte says, and thus is easier to read and use.

Good information design can do more than just improve user-friendliness. At the Vietnam War Memorial, Washington's most-visited monument, it stirs emotions. As viewers approach the two converging black-granite slabs, Tufte says, they see at a glance the enormity of 58,000 dead. Up close, they find each soldier's name listed in chronological order of death, thus grouping the names of those who served and died together. Maya Ying Lin's stark design adds a poignancy that would have been lost had the names simply been listed alphabetically, as in some giant granite telephone book.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.