Informing Design’s Origins
With a background in math and graphic design, Bob Firth founded Informing Design as a firm that distilled complex data sets into simple charts and graphs, initially for engineers at Westinghouse. He didn’t realize at the time that he was living amidst one of the most complex information problems in the country: the Pittsburgh highway network. Prodded by engineer friends, he tackled “charting” a solution to those tangled roads, producing what became one of the best-selling regional titles of all time, the “Pittsburgh Figured Out” atlas. Within a few years of that success, the City asked his firm to develop one of the largest city wayfinding sign systems ever implemented. Twenty years later, its big, colorful “Wayfinder” signs still guide motorists to the five areas of Pittsburgh, and then to major destinations and parking within each area.
As he developed his ideas for how the sign system should work, Bob started to systematize his cartographic insights into a tool he termed “aggregate effect gridding.” Bob discovered that even the most complex-appearing road networks, including Pittsburgh’s, can be distilled into layers of grids based on range of effect (local neighborhood roads vs. arteries that link neighborhoods vs. regional highways between cities). The result is a road map that is visually untangled — that is, no two roads on any given layer intersect, or “tangle,” with each other. It’s quite a trick. (See the “Gridding the Ungriddable” case study for the full story.) With this tool, road maps can be packed with detail and yet still be simple enough to grasp at a glance. This provides for sidewalk kiosk maps, interactive maps and print maps that “read” so naturally that people don’t even realize how much more information they’re figuring out compared to “tangled” maps. The firm has applied its mapping approach to over 200 cities and towns, including the untangling of most of the country’s largest cities and the untangling of all state and national highways east of the Mississippi.
Moreover, wayfinding routings become untangled as well, and the corresponding signage can provide a much simpler and more effective guidance tool for communities, with far fewer signs than are found in typical wayfinding systems. After the Pittsburgh system, Bob’s firm went on to develop three more of the largest wayfinding sign systems in North America — the Nashville system, the statewide system for Maryland and the system in Winnipeg — in addition to numerous smaller systems.
In the works at Informing Design are new kinds of “city de-complexifying” apps (see “Disagreeing with the London Underground Map” for a preview of the transit version), apps that give users the freedom of action that comes with being able to master a city with just quick glances, in contrast to apps that rigidly spew out “hits” and directions that leave users in the dark, chained to hidden algorithms and spotty data. The first such app is now out, Pittsburgh's BigBurgh.com for homeless services.