Very recently, I was kindly asked by European content strategists Firehead Ltd to be the guinea pig (the picture makes sense now, right?) for the first in their ‘Interview with…’ series. Here’s what I had to say
What is your job title?
My business card says Robert Hempsall – Information Designer, but I’m thinking about changing it to Simplificationist so people stop thinking I’m a web designer. Trading under my own name was a conscious decision, to allow me the flexibility to take on work from all sources: freelance, contract and direct client work.
What does being an information designer actually involve?
My job is to make information easy to understand. The bulk of this is everyday information such as forms, instructions and complex language. I write and design these to make them simpler so they don’t end up costing businesses in one way or another: either the financial cost of dealing with the customer, or the damage to a brand’s reputation created through bad word of mouth.
Every now and then, someone asks me to apply the concept of simplifying information in a slightly sideways manner – this has included vegetable planting charts and labels for recycling bins!
What background do you need?
Although there are information design qualifications, most of my contemporaries had traditional graphic design backgrounds and, one way or another, stumbled upon a talent for information design.
My lightbulb moment came when I was waiting for a bus, contemplating the awfulness of a map. I had a go at redesigning the map as part of the final year of my degree. An application for work experience turned into having a job for nearly seven years before I started working for myself.
What is your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is convincing people of the value of dealing with the day-to-day information they give their customers. Where there are problems with the kinds of information I write and design, most companies’ solution is to plough their efforts into dealing with the symptoms – more people to answer phones, sending out more information – rather than the more cost-effective approach of fixing the cause of the problem.
And the best thing about being an information designer is…
That’s easy: doing the work that interests me. I’m probably too old, heavy and uncoordinated to become a professional sportsman now, so I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. Sure, it’s a bit of a niche field, and telling people what I do gets me some strange looks, but I find it fascinating – I suspect there’s a frustrated psychologist hiding somewhere deep in my psyche.
What advice would you give to a student or young designer trying to get into your area?
Don’t expect to become famous. In fact, if you do get noticed – it’s more likely you’ll be notorious. Good information design tends to quietly get on with its job: only when someone finds something confusing do they start to talk about it. Think how many times you’ve heard someone complain that something is confusing. A lot, right? Now think how many times you’ve heard anyone say that something is really easy to understand. Nowhere near as often.
How do you charge?
I try to quote and work on a project basis, usually in stages each worked out in days (each charged at £300). In the past, these quotes have ranged from a day’s work up to £8,000. The first stage is almost always to make the information ‘look’ simpler. This slightly superficial approach is often the way to convince people involved in the project that it’s also worth pursuing the other stages and solving the problems in the detail.
Is there job mobility/security?
The concept of information design seems to be gaining momentum; in fact, the need to make information as simple as possible is becoming a regulatory requirement in several countries. This is great news for me, both from a business and ideological point of view.
The wonders of the internet mean that I’ve been able to work with clients all over the world in the last few years: Canada, Dubai and a lovely company called Firehead based in Lund to name a few. A few more clients closer to home would be great, though, so I could get out a bit more.
What about training and development?
As was pointed out to me recently, the information design community is very bad at promoting itself, so finding out about it can be quite difficult. There are a number of good books available for specific areas, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that explains information design at a basic level.
It’s always worth looking up the books of Edward Tufte and Don Norman. Although they aren’t directly related, the way they think has a lot in common with information design.
And career progression?
I sense information design principles will become more and more relevant on the web. User interface design and information architecture are already well established, meaning the standard of sites is constantly increasing. Websites as a means of communicating information are functional objects, so it’s the attention to detail that will become the point of differentiation. The more easily someone can understand the information they find on a site, the more likely they are to come back. Great content (the content strategist’s job) and understandable content (the information designer’s job) are a winning combination.
Do you have a motto or guiding principle when you work?
Mine is simple, no, it’s ‘simple’. After all, that’s what I am, a man who makes things easy to understand.