London IA Mini 4: Max Gadney - "Information isn't beautiful"

 by Martin Belam, 26 November 2009

On November 11th we held the latest in our series of London IA Mini conference evenings. The hosts were EMC Conchango and our kind sponsors were Zebra People. We had a top selection of speakers - Max Gadney, Richard Sedley, Jason Mesut and Oliver Reichenstein. Today I wanted to post some of my notes and a video clip of the talk from Max.

London IA title slide

Max Gadney

His talk had been billed as a 'challenge' to "much of current practice in data visualisation and the wider IA discipline". He said "users need a bit more than just well organised data, and those practitioners just concerned with their CVs/portfolios are not helping matters".

Max cited the architectural concept of a building looking like the function it performs - the parti. Or, as the idea translates to infographics, "Where is my giant 3D image of a tank". He wants interfaces and information layouts which, when you squint at them, still convey to the reader what they are about, and he doesn't think a lot of data visualisation or 'Web 2.0' user interfaces do that.

This is, by nature, Max felt, difficult for designers and information architects. We are obsessed with details and minutiae. It is by carefully classifying the content and colour-coding it, and standardising it, and organising it, that we make the small elements of information into a coherent whole. As a result, we have a microscopic view, whereas in most cases the poor user simply wants to grasp the overall big picture.

Max also made a point that he felt a lot of information visualisation was the representation of data 'for the sake of it', rather than something that was useful. As designers, he argued, we are always making the vessels for someone else's content. When left to our own devices, we struggle to know what 'content' to put in the vessels we make. Downloading a chunk of data and playing with it gives us something to work with, even if the output is of little genuine use to the audience.

Max Gadney on why information isn't beautiful

In this clip, you can see Max explaining why he doesn't think that information is inherently beautiful.


In the next post in this series I'll have another video clip of Max Gadney, explaining how he sees the IA and the designer performing the role of 'the glass-bottomed boat' in an ocean of information.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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