Origins of the IDA

The IDA was launched on 14 May 1991 at a meeting at the Royal Society of Arts, attended by about 200 people.

IDA’s roots in the Information Design Journal

Before IDA, there was the Information Design Journal (IDJ). IDJ was founded in 1979, acting as a focus for an emerging community of graphic designers and writers, teachers and researchers. Rob Waller, who was one of IDJ’s founders and for many years its Chair, lists the following influences and inspirations for that community:

  • Michael Twyman’s curriculum at the University of Reading Department of Typography;
  • Merald Wrolstad’s Journal of Typographic Research, later renamed Visible Language (and still going strong);
  • the interdisciplinary work of Herbert Spencer and his colleagues at the Royal College of Arts;
  • Patricia Wright, at the Applied Psychology Unit of the Medical Research Council;
  • the Textual Communication Research group at The Open University (including Rob Waller himself).

The Information Design Journal published research articles, and appeared with some irregularity, whenever enough interesting articles had been assembled. Five IDJ readers’ conference were held over the years; these were the first of the ‘Information Design Conferences’ in the UK, in a tradition which the current IDA is carrying forward.

The term ‘information design’ and its meaning

It’s unclear when the term ‘information design’ emerged. There had been a NATO-sponsored conference at Het Vennebos in The Netherlands, and its procedings were published by John Wiley under the title ‘Information Design’ in 1979. Rob Waller and his fellow founding IDJ editor Bryan Smith tossed various terms about before adopting Information Design in the title for the journal. Rob comments:

Certainly we had a distinctive meaning for [Information Design] – to apply processes of design (that is, planning) to the communication of information (its content and language as well as its form). It was intended to be a counterpoint to the corporate identity and glitzy graphics that seemed to take over graphic design in the 80s.

IDA’s launch and early ambitions

Rob Waller recalls a conversation at the TechDoc ’87 conference in Eastbourne, in which he discovered that Julie Baddeley of the communication consultancy Baddeley Associates had aspirations to found an organisation for the emergent profession of designers and creators of clear information-communication products and documentation. Julie’s colleague John Lowson also contributed much of the early thinking and energy.

The coalition which did the work that led to the launch of the IDA was a divergent one and there were several different kinds of aspiration. One trend, which Baddely Associates represented, was the desire to have some sort of Trade Association which would blow the trumpet for the profession. Meanwhile Rob and others around the IDJ saw the association as a way to gather and meet and develop the ideas discussed in the Journal.

Additionally, there were many who saw the IDA as potentially championing a ‘public service’ agenda, remedying the ills of society by designing information better. Rob Waller again...

In terms of ‘the public good’, we wanted IDA experts to sit on relevant British Standards committees and similar bodies discussing, say, food labelling or safety warnings... we had ambitions for the media to appreciate that the public might be interested in what information designers say. We hoped that information design experts might be interviewed along with other experts after, say, a disaster in which poor information design contributed (e.g. the Three Mile Island nuclear accident).

At the fourth Information Design conference, at the University of Bath, a group of people determined to go ahead with plans for the IDA, and a steering committee was formed. Their work led to the official launch at the RSA, at a packed meeting chaired by Nick Ross.