Information Design in the Margins

Since its inception in 1980, the Venice Architecture Biennale, one of the most prestigious international architecture events, has attracted global architects and design aficionados. As an extension of the broader Art Biennale, which dates back to 1895, the Architecture Biennale has evolved into a significant forum for highlighting key trends and developments in the field of architecture. In the historic setting of Venice, particularly in the Giardini and Arsenale, the Biennale serves as a platform for presenting innovative architectural concepts and engaging in discourse about architecture‘s societal role. The event is more than an exhibition; it is a convergence point for architects, critics, and audiences to discuss current challenges and future visions in architecture. Over the years, the Biennale has continually adapted to changing global and social contexts, maintaining its objective of reflecting the dynamic and multifaceted evolution of architecture.

During my first encounter with the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, it quickly became apparent that the event was not only a showcase for architectural themes but also an underappreciated highlight in information design. The way complex societal issues were visualized and made interactive was particularly impressive from a professional standpoint. The installations presented were adept at conveying complex topics such as urbanization and environmental concerns through scenographic execution, or by utilizing digital media to create emotionally resonant and immersive experiences. Numerous instances demonstrated that the Biennale transcends architectural themes; information design plays a pivotal role in emphasizing data, contexts, and narratives and their influence in our lives. This observation prompted me to consider whether the Venice Architecture Biennale should also be recognized as a prominent event in the realm of information design.

To comprehend this dynamic, examining the thematic focuses of the last three Architecture Biennales is revealing. The 2018 Biennale, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara and titled ”Freespace”, centered on “the generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture‘s agenda.” The 2021 edition, led by Hashim Sarkis with the theme “How will we live together?”, explored ideas of cohabitation and community. The 2023 Biennale, under Lesley Lokko with “The Laboratory of the Future”, emphasized the importance of imagination as a tool: “At the heart of all projects is the primacy and potency of one tool: the imagination.”

The themes of the recent Biennales open up a broad spectrum of content that extends beyond traditional architectural concepts. Data, facts, models, and narratives are essential in materializing complex concepts within this context. This necessitates an innovative application of information design techniques to make the multifaceted aspects of these themes accessible to a broader audience. Thus, information design becomes a critical instrument in translating abstract ideas into tangible spatial and social impacts. But what exactly renders information design at the Venice Architecture Biennales a unique experience? Let’s consider the framework:

Interdisciplinary Platform: The Biennale is a nexus for professionals across various disciplines. It provides a fertile ground for interaction between information designers, architects, urban planners, and artists, fostering interdisciplinary projects and innovation.

Global Perspective: The Biennale, with its international participants and audience, offers a comprehensive global viewpoint on the themes and the diversity of contributions. Information design is integral to this diversity, reflected in the variety of concepts and implementations.

Experimental Ground for Emerging Technologies: The Biennale is noted for embracing new technologies and media. Designers are encouraged to experiment with digital tools, media, and expressive forms, integrating them into thematic contexts.

Scenographic Context: The Biennale takes place at various historic and modern venues in Venice, from the Giardini to smaller galleries and temporary pavilions. This variety allows for experimentation with dimensions and scaling, enabling new experiences in information dissemination.

Temporal Dynamics: The Venice Architecture Biennale transcends a mere display. A visit entails a commitment to engage deeply with the contributions, fostering the development of profound thematic narratives and realizing a level of complexity in execution.

The Biennale‘s status as a non-exclusive event for information design allows for a relaxed and expansive approach to the field. Many participating designers might not identify themselves as specialists in this area, while others with expertise in this field may be particularly open to unconventional approaches. How is this manifested?

Movement frequently plays a pivotal role in the dramaturgy of information delivery. Architecture and information intersect here in a dynamic frame: Timelines that need to be traversed, diagrams that are walkable, and multi-level installations that offer varying perspectives. There are consistently surprising works that playfully oscillate between cultural perceptions: Oversized woven tapestries displaying pictorial statistics, maps plotted in sand, charts assembled from plastic waste. These works provide deep insights into topics rarely presented in direct context elsewhere: A Mexican basketball court adjacent to Singapore’s participative visualization installation next to Luxembourg’s models for moon colonization. This variety is not only inspiring but also highly informative. What methodologies are effective? What could be improved? How are surprises achieved? How do conventional approaches fare? What is being observed today, and what might we ourselves create tomorrow?

The importance and visibility of information design have significantly increased over recent decades. The exchange and self-understanding within the field have undergone substantial shifts. New platforms provide updates on latest developments, conferences gather enthusiasts from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, and social media create echo chambers for celebrated works and their creators. From the perspective of an educator in information design since the early 90s, developments on the periphery have gained prominence. Here, we encounter current and pertinent topics that need to prove themselves in a real communicative context. Paradoxically, while the Architecture Biennale is by no means an insignificant event, from this viewpoint, it represents such a periphery.

The evolution of the Architecture Biennale, from an information design perspective, embodies a process indicative of the field’s dynamic nature. Tracing back from the 18th Biennale in 2023 to the 14th in 2014, there is a noticeable progression from relatively conventional, routine methods of information dissemination to increasingly diverse, experimental, and culturally varied concepts and implementations. This dynamism has become a hallmark of the Architecture Biennale. Therefore, it is my firm belief that it should indeed be recognized as a preeminent event in the field of information design.

A woman stands in front of a physical data visualization.
AOUMM + Marco Biraghi, Z! Zingonia, Mon Amour, Arsenale 2014
A woman stands in front of a physical data visualization.
Ori Scialom, Roy Brand, Keren Yeala Golan, Edith Kofsky, Uburb, Israel Pavilion 2014
A blue wall with a data visualization displayed on the wall.
Irma Boom, Malkit Shoshan, Blue, Dutch Pavilion 2016
Transparent walls are etched with map data visualizations.
AtelierWorks, Conflicts of an Urban Age, Arsenale 2018
A projected wall of data visualizations displaying tourist resorts across the globe are bright zones with separate infrastructures serving temporary occupants.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro, In Plain Sight, U.S. Pavilion 2018
A large room with data visualizations lining the walls from floor to ceiling.
Bestiario, Becoming, Spanish Pavilion 2018
A man stands in front of a large data visualization hanging on the wall.
Ligia Pedra, Cartographies, Brazilian Pavilion 2018
A table with wooden towers serving as a physical data visualization.
Obrat doo, The Common in Community, Slovenian Pavilion 2021
A woman stands on a large, printed data visualization.
Asaiel Al Saeed, Aseel AlYaqoub, Saphiya Abu Al-Maati and Yousef Awaad Hussein, Space Wars, Kuwaiti Pavilion 2021
A room with a large-scale data visualization printed, with several hundred strings attached to various points.
José Orrego Herrera, Undercover, Peru Pavilion 2018

David Skopec is an information designer from Berlin. He is a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he heads the department of information design. He oversees the programs in both the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, especially the Visual Society Program (VISOP) at the intersection of information design and social sciences. Additionally, he is the founder of the Berlin design studio ‘kognito gestaltung,’ which specializes in information design for scientific and public institutions.