Industry Insights on Information Design

Christopher Moorehead RGD, Director of Information Design at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, talks about being a designer in the consulting industry, with a focus on information design and data visualization. 



Describe your organization’s valuation of design as a business tool.

Many of our global consulting competitors (i.e Deloitte and Accenture) have acquired design studios outright — Accenture’s 2013 acquisition of Fjord being a good example. PwC Digital is unique in that we haven’t done that, as we’re building our design practice from the ground up, under our own name. In addition, information design requires a specialized skill set, so buying a design studio wouldn’t necessarily help us. We need a specific type of designer who probably wouldn’t be found in a branding or editorial shop.


Given that our work is multi-disciplinary in nature — our team will, for example, include non-designers who possess specialized subject-matter expertise — our client base tends to be skewed toward large corporations and financial institutions, with the engagements (the term the consulting world uses for projects) being of a scale often beyond the reach of smaller studios.


Is there a design approach or insight you feel is unique to your organization?

Our design approach is different from that of a conventional design studio, or a normal in-house design department. While we are technically in-house design, we are what consulting firms refer to as "client facing” — that is, we sell our services directly to clients, or as part of a larger PwC combined service offering. We are therefore considered revenue generators, rather than overhead.


This client-facing status has certain advantages. We are not seen as a “cost centre” by PwC’s leadership, and we have the opportunity to work on a variety of engagements within multiple industry sectors. It also gives us exposure to other areas of PwC, and the opportunity to work in multi-disciplinary teams. On the down side, the demands on our team are extremely high, and we suffer from a constant shortage of design resources. Since we serve internal and external clients, we have “many bosses”, all with different priorities. We are under constant pressure to generate revenue, which can adversely affect long-term business development. Finally, most of our work is highly confidential, so we can't talk about it or show it to anyone — a difficult situation given the egos of most designers!



Can you share information on a project you're working on that you're excited about?

One of the most interesting areas in which we’ve been working is what we call “the future of reporting”. Many large organizations generate hundreds, or even thousands, of reports each year — financial reports, risk reports and operational reports. For the most part, these reports are not useful, and, in many cases, not read at all.


We're currently finishing up the second phase of an engagement with a major Canadian bank to redesign its Board Risk Reports to improve the speed and effectiveness with which the Board makes governance decisions. We did a complete redesign of the report using financial risk management, advanced reporting, and information design best practices, as well as redesigning the information architecture and user interface using persona development, user experience co-creation workshops with stakeholders, rapid prototyping, and iterative design. The end result was a much smaller but far more informative report tailored to the exact needs of the Board.


How do you keep design communications fresh and inspired while working within corporate standards?

Because we’re client-facing, most of our work does not use PwC’s branding standards, but rather those of the client. This usually makes our work more interesting — we have the opportunity to incorporate many branding standards into our visuals. The down side is that it is difficult to build an effective, scalable design system when the branding guidelines are always changing. And, of course, we do get the occasional client with a ghastly colour palette or typeface — but we try to look at that as a challenge rather than a liability!


Over the past few years, what changes to the Information Design industry have you noticed most?

In terms of technology, the emergence of pre-packaged data visualization software, such as Tableau and Power BI, as well as web-based visualization tools such as D3, have had a great effect on the Information Design industry. In the past, I built all my visualizations by hand, which was extremely time consuming. The rise of cloud-based collaborative technology has also changed the way we work, as has the introduction of rapid prototyping software such as InVision — we used to “fake" functional mock-ups by hand, but the new tools allow us to get concepts in front of our clients much faster.


Over the next five or 10 years, there will likely be significant advances in design technology. However, this will only allow us to design faster, not necessarily better. Mastery of the basics of design — composition, colour, typography — through a formal, critique-based design education will still reign supreme. As I like to say, "owning a copy of Adobe Creative Suite no more makes you a designer than owning a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada makes you a lawyer”.


What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges emerging within the information design industry?

In my opinion, the business world’s embracing of “design thinking” has been a real game-changer for the design industry. Designers are no longer mere "decorators” — they've moved beyond traditional branding and editorial roles and are now actively participating in core business operations. As is currently happening at PwC, large corporations and consultancies are setting up their own in-house design teams, or, as is the case with some of our competitors, acquiring design studios outright. I expect this trend will continue — while I believe the studio model will always be with us, most of the growth in demand will be in the area of in-house design.


To me, the greatest challenge moving forward will be the integration of non-designers into design teams. We have watched the practice of design move from the “lone genius” model personified by Paul Rand, through the multi-designer teams necessary to take on increasingly complex design projects, to multi-disciplinary teams composed of a mix of designers and non-designer subject matter experts. At PwC, we have moved beyond even this model to one in which the client is an active part of the design team, and we co-create with the client. This requires designers to step up to the plate and become facilitators of these increasingly diverse teams.



What do you feel is the most important trend in Information Design right now?

I believe the most important Information Design trend is the moving away from what I call “data art”. Much of this work is extremely appealing visually, but it is difficult to glean any meaningful insights from it. In my opinion, the true beauty of information design is not in its aesthetics, but whether it imparts any meaningful information to its intended audience. In this sense, a simple, appropriately annotated and informatively titled bar chart can be a far more effective work of information design than an aesthetically attractive but overly complex and difficult-to-decipher data visualization.


What do you feel is unique about the Canadian design community?

I find the Canadian design community to be very collegial — there really aren’t that many of us, and we all know each other. The Information Design community is even smaller — I probably know almost every information designer in Toronto personally. The down side to this is that it can be difficult to hire information designers, as there aren’t many of them. In my non-PwC hours, I’m a sessional faculty member at OCAD University — apart from providing me with an outlet for my love of teaching, this gives me the opportunity to identify potential junior designers for our practice. In fact, we just hired one of my graduating students a couple of weeks ago!



Published July 2018