Angela Morelli and Tom Gabriel Johansen are award-winning information designers and the founders of InfoDesignLab—an organization whose goal is to empower professionals, designers, scientists, and journalists to turn complex information into meaningful narratives, beautiful visions, and understandable messages.
As friends of the Oslo Manifesto, Angela and Tom were happy to do a Q&A with us. Here we talk about what it means to “design understanding,” how they are currently working with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and why a human-centered approach should be the backbone of any information design project
Q: What are you most passionate about in your work?
We are passionate about designing understanding because understanding precedes good decisions, action, and change.
Whether it is about scientific evidence or large data sets, about educational material or frameworks for decision-making, we believe that information is powerful only if it can be understood. Information design can support understanding because the goal is to turn complex information into knowledge or action in the head of an audience. As information designers, we achieve that through a constant dialogue with the content experts, by asking the right questions and identifying the right challenges.
Our experience in dealing with big data, our knowledge of scientific processes, our passion for numbers and statistics, our care for quantitative and qualitative information and, above all, an understanding of the barriers that can prevent users from making sense of complex information, guide us in our decisions during the design process. It is vital to design information not only in a way that is clear, but also in a way that strikes the right note in the mind of the viewer.
“Information is powerful only if it can be understood.”
Q: How do you view the role of design when it comes to creating a more sustainable future?
We founded InfoDesignLab with the idea that our work and our values should be in synch.
We never stop feeling overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty of the planet. It is almost about being in a constant ‘Overview Effect’ mode— the powerful sensation astronauts have when they get the opportunity to look down and view the Earth as a whole, to reflect on its beauty. We have never been to the moon 🙂 but we feel that beauty and we like thinking that our work can contribute to preserving it, by empowering an audience to make wise and informed decisions. Astronauts say that the Overview Effect can generate a shift and the need to create a sustainable society. We think that sparking the Overview Effect by design, without having been to the moon, is a powerful achievement.
The core potential of design being impactful lies in the process. Communicating complex information requires finding design solutions to complex challenges, and adopting a human-centered design approach is key to identifying the right narratives. A human-centered approach is the backbone of any information design project. According to a human-centered approach, it is crucial to learn how our audience will decode the information, to understand their context, to build a real dialogue with them, to design with them, to listen to their needs, to take their feedback seriously, to improve the design according to that feedback. A human-centred approach is crucial, but it’s not necessarily sufficient for designing a sustainable future. We also need to look at the system, to think systemically.
“Astronauts say that the Overview Effect can generate a shift and the need to create a sustainable society. We think that sparking the Overview Effect by design, without having been to the moon, is a powerful achievement.”
Q: What do you find most challenging about your work/industry in relation to sustainability?
Measuring the impact of what we do is tricky, and we are currently working hard to put a framework in place that allows us to have a better understanding of that impact. It is not easy.
Q: What actions or initiatives are you currently taking to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
Most of our projects are related to the SDGs—from communicating the science of virtual water in order to increase awareness about the way we use this precious resource (The Water We Eat – SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation) to designing resources to teach school children to assess the reliability of health claims (Informed Health Choices – SDG 4: Quality Education); from visualizing the Norwegian Environmental Targets through an engaging data story (Hvorfor er det viktig? – SDGs 12, 13, 14) to designing a platform that engages investors in sustainability challenges (Align 17 – SDG 17).
We are grateful because many organizations who work towards the SDGs get in touch with us as they need clear and engaging design. At the same time, we keep knocking on the doors of potential new clients for whom sustainability might not be a priority but who welcome new challenges if they understand they can have big, positive effect.
“Most of our projects are related to the SDGs—from communicating the science of virtual water in order to increase awareness about the way we use this precious resource to designing resources to teach school children to assess the reliability of health claims…”
Q: How can we get more creative professionals to take responsibility and truly realize the difference they can make for the SDGs?
Good design leads to systemic transformations but the process behind it can be invisible. We are currently working on an SDG-lab, The Value of Design. Visualised, that we will run at DOGA in August. The lab will be a multi-stakeholder meeting involving designers, information designers, researchers, scientists, businesses with the goal of creating a visual output that makes ‘the dark matter of design’ more tangible. The design community is our target audience. The Oslo Manifesto will be our starting point because it clearly highlights the bridge between the responsibility of designers/architects and the achievement of the SDGs. Creating a fingerprint of a range of very different projects that contribute to the achievement of the SDGs will be our goal. By doing so we will provide a visual blueprint that can hopefully be useful for other designers.
To learn more about Angela, Tom, and InfoDesignLab, visit https://infodesignlab.com