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Northwestern Launches Information Design Degree

New online master's degree program fills training gap for professionals

“In an era when the crafting of messages and meaning is so central to our lives, information design is not only important, it’s essential.” – Eric Patrick, associate professor in Northwestern's School of Communication
CHICAGO, Ill. --- As job opportunities multiply for Web developers, graphic designers, communications professionals and other specialists in fields that rely on visual data, Northwestern University School of Professional Studies is launching a new part-time, online graduate degree, a Master of Science in Information Design and Strategy.

The program aims to help business leaders answer a critical question of the times: What’s the best way to deliver digital information?

Information design involves translating data and information into highly effective visual narratives and communication, often within an online or digital context.

Though similar to information architecture and Web development, information design is a broader, multidisciplinary field, one that also includes visual and written communication skills, data analytics and learning theory.

Designed for professionals, Northwestern’s pioneering online degree program fills a traditional educational gap in the field of information design. The training helps specialists learn to think broadly and targets creative communicators who want to improve leadership skills, fill multiple roles and bring together design, communication, development and technology teams.

The program will help professionals translate complex content, data and digital information into compelling visual forms and narratives to make it more accessible to users, customers and audiences.

“The incredibly comprehensive curriculum offers a deep dive into user-friendly design,” said Eric Patrick, an associate professor in Northwestern’s School of Communication and a member of the information design graduate program faculty. 

“Students learn how to best translate information in virtual or actual environments and can hit the ground running in their careers,” he said. “In an era when the crafting of messages and meaning is so central to our lives, information design is not only important, it’s essential.”

When it’s done right, the results are powerful: Websites with compelling content and clear navigation, signs that help people get around, and bills and bank statements that make sense.

Information design failures, such as chaotic, text-heavy websites, confusing “you are here” signs, or poorly written online tutorials, can be frustrating, inefficient and costly.

Northwestern, the only university of its caliber to offer an online graduate degree program in information design, is one of the first schools to define specific skills needed in the field.

Traditional information design programs follow two basic tracks: One emphasizes the design aspects; a second focuses on technical skills. Northwestern’s approach blends the technical/engineering aspect with programs that focus on communication and design theory.

“Right now people in the field may have a rigorous background in statistics, science or math, but they don’t understand the visual display of data,” said Patrick, a specialist in animation and experimental filmmaking. “Or they’re artists or graphic designers who don’t understand statistics. The idea is to try to draw from both of those crowds, to get a well-rounded person in the field.”

Northwestern’s program consists of 12 courses (nine required, three elective) carefully selected from the disciplines essential to information design, such as user-centered design, content strategy, visual and written communication and data management.

Students will also gain an understanding of how data analytics and learning theory fit into these activities. 

The advisory board that created the new design program consists of faculty from the School of Communication as well as leading experts in the field, including Josh Grau, director of brand strategy at Twitter Europe; Jake Setlak, vice president and planning director at Energy BBDO; and Samuel Tepper, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts continued growth in areas touched by digital design, due in large part to the increasingly important role that digital media play in managing customer relationships.

“There are lots of opportunities; employers are hungry for people with an overall picture of information management and design,” Patrick said.

Applications are currently being accepted and are due by July 15, 2015. Classes begin in fall 2015.

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