Horn, “Information Design: Emergence of a New Profession”

Horn sketches a history and set of definitions for the field that’s come to be known as Information Design (ID). In short, he defines it as “the art and science of preparing information so that it can be used by human beings with efficiency and effectiveness.”

In his sketch, he makes a case for the need for ID in “our complex modern society,” but also notes that it is not, as of yet (or as of the writing of this piece, at least), “a fully integrated profession. Its practitioners have quite different views of the profession—even different names for it.”

Horn’s history of ID contains a list of “some of those who contributed to its development”: inventors (of “particular classes of communication units,” “e.g., bar charts, pie charts, or time lines”), systematizers and analysts (who have “tried to bring all the pieces of the graphic language together to analyze them from a particular point of view”), universalists (“individuals [who] have hoped that purely visual communication, without the use of words, could become an international auxiliary language”), collectors (creators of reference materials), writers of instruction manuals, aestheticians, popularizers (who have brought ID to larger audiences via media such as newspapers, magazines and advertising), researchers (working in fields such as “communications, education, learning, human factors in technology, computer interface design, and perception”), the British Information Design Society, and research foundations for ID.

One of the areas of this foundational research is structured writing (or Information Mapping), which “provides as systematic way of analyzing any subject matter to be conveyed in a written document.” Coming form an academic English (literature and composition studies) background, I found this statement particularly interesting: “One of the insights gained from structured writing is that the paragraph is too poorly defined to be a basic unit of the analysis [of the subject matter to be conveyed in a written document].”

Horn goes on to discuss some of the stresses or challenges that ID has, and does, face: a failure to fully integrate research (across the profession, such as it is defined), tensions in information design (primarily between graphic designers and technical communicators, professionals and amateurs—who are enabled by ID-democratizing forces such as the ubiquity of the computer and the development of ID-associated software for wider and wider audiences).

Horn concludes by making a case for ID as a visual language, a proper language in and of itself. Related to this argument, he traces the shifts (in recent years) of image-to-word ratios, pointing to somewhat of a centering process—wherein traditionally text-based media have been using images much more and, for example, universalist efforts have begun using more text/words in their work.


  • As of today, is the field (of ID) still as un-integrated, and tension-challenged as Horn describes here (in 1999)?
  • Are the international symbols described on page 24 still so poorly understood by the general populace, or has understanding improved over time? (Couldn’t such a thing—with familiarity of use over years?)
  • Are VLicons also more successful (than image-only communication) amongst audiences that don’t know/speak/read the languages the (limited) text is written in?