Show, Not Tell: The Immortal Infographic

There has been no coroner’s report—the infographic is not dead.

This powerful form of visual storytelling, a graphic representation of information, data or knowledge, may be overused in today’s data-obsessed world but is still very much alive. The use of visualized information has surged over the past decade, prevalent in nearly every publication (print or digital) and shared widely across social media.

Infographics are vital in the age of information overload

 We receive five times the amount of information as we did in 1986, and our brains crave easy ways to sort and digest it all. Whether showcasing socioeconomic trends or sports statistics, a great infographic can curate and convey information more clearly than plain text. And in a time when our attention spans have all but diminished, infographics make consuming ogles of information easy, entertaining and sharable.

We truly demand data to be represented in this graphic medium. In the last few years alone, infographic search volumes have increased more than 800 percent.

“We’re creating more data and developing even more ways to track and visualize it,” said Larry Buchanan, a designer, illustrator, coder and The New York Times journalist who teaches a “Your First Infographic” series to aspiring graphic designers at Generally Assembly in New York.

“As long as there is data, there will be an overwhelming need to make sense of it, draw conclusions from it and visualize it into meaningful stories.”

Good versus evil

Infogaphics can truly be beautiful and informative works of science and art.

“Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency,” says Edward R. Tufte, the long-standing leader of data visualization, in the introduction to his iconic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

On the other hand, there are entire websites (and even infographics) dedicated to the mass of incoherent, misleading and poorly designed infographics crawling the web, many that serve little purpose other than “link bait,” as Buchanan describes them.

He admits to creating his fair share of “long, skinny and useless” infographics. “But I can’t remember ever learning anything from the types of visualizations that are more decorative than explanatory,” said Larry. “The infographics I learn the most from are the ones where the designer has taken the approach of a reporter and has attacked an issue.”

Thanks to an increase in free data visualization creation tools such as Statsilk.com, Visual.ly and Piktochart, any Average Joe can tell their story through data via these do-it-yourself programs—and they’re doing so with many a “decorative scheme.”

In a chapter of Tufte’s book on graphic integrity, he says, “sometimes decoration can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic, but it is wrong to distort the data measures… to fit a decorative scheme.”

As perhaps the most powerful communicative medium today, infographics must be designed—and interpreted—with care, precision and integrity.

Better consumers…

 As Tufte says, “it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper.”

If people are tired of bad infographics, then the answer is refreshingly simple: Make better ones. As a society, we must learn to become more critical consumers of data visualization—learning to decipher between “good” and “bad” infographics—a move that will push those producing them to use more than jazzy fonts and cute illustrations.

“Infographic literacy is extremely valuable,” said John Caserta, an assistant graphics design professor at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “As a consumer, you have to ask yourself questions like: Am I being fooled?, What is the message here?, Are the sources reputable?, Is the data being represented fairly?”

 As infographics become more ubiquitous, society will become more literate in reading charts, diagrams and graphic representations of data. In turn, producers of infographics—from marketers to brands and designers—will need to be more mindful in creating impactful graphics.

Make for better designers

Lucinda Hitchcock, another graphic design professor at RISD, echoes the idea of designing infographics with real meaning. Arming students with a solid knowledge of data interpretation and the tools to create innovative infographics from data is a big focus for RISD.

“As more people are better equipped to process data and develop physical interpretations of numbers, the tactful curation of data will become that much more important,” she said. “We help designers learn how to condense large data sets into a visual narrative that’s complex but still easy to read.”

Design can be a source for good or a source for confusion, says Buchanan.

“As a designer, I try to view myself as a reporter, just with a different skillset,” he said. “Instead of writing a great lead, I’m great at scraping and ‘interviewing the data.’

Buchanan asks questions to see if data holds up. He calls experts to fact check numbers. He conducts vast amounts of research. He works with different editors. He even creates up to 100 charts representing the same data to see which graphic tells the story in the most compelling, understandable way.

“If we [designers] approach data with a critical and creative lens, we can help people understand intricate ideas through better and more beautiful visual representations.”

What’s next?

 Undeniably, the future of the infographic is bright.

“It’s not as cookie cutter as one might think,” said Buchanan. “You’ll see infographics go from static to incredibly interactive. They’ll become integrated into longer-form stories combining video, audio and text in exciting ways.”

 Expect to see infographics using parallax scrolling (a lá The New York Times’ “Snowfall”), motion graphics, image tagging, real-time data and more. Infographics are here to stay because, well, we both need them (they’re easy to digest and share) and want them (they’re becoming more engaging).

As technology and tools become more sophisticated so will the ways in which we track data and tell stories. And in a world (wide web) where data dominates, the infographic just may be immortal.

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Show, Not Tell: The Immortal Infographic