In 2011, infographics were as overplayed as that Adele song (you know the one I’m talking about), but I still can't get enough of them. (Infographics, that is.) And since it seems that they’re not going away anytime soon, 2012 should be the year we learn to use them more responsibly.
Infographics use static images, videos or interactivity to tell a story based on data. Data visualizations, on the other hand, are graphic representations (charts, graphs, etc) of numbers, text, conditions or other measurable items. Data visualizations are fairly objective and leave the reader to explore and infer. Infographics guide the reader to a predetermined conclusion, one which may or may not be explicitly stated.
Infographics are overwhelmingly popular because they make dry, data-driven stories fun. Instead of trudging through yet another fact-laden article, readers feel like they’re exploring as they scroll through, click around, or watch an infographic. Even when infographics are a few thousand pixels tall, they’re the antithesis of TLDR. ("Too Long. Didn't Read." for those of you not fluent in Internet lingo.) Both this expression and the infographic epidemic reflect the ever-shrinking size of the average Internet user’s attention span, which is sliced into smaller and smaller pieces by the constant, daily influx of information.
Although there is nothing inherently bad about infographics, bad infographics are all too common. The primary offenders generally fall into three categories: ugly, confusing and deceiving.
I won't spend much time on ugly since it's the most subjective of the three, and perhaps the least problematic. A beautiful infographic requires several rounds of revisions, the application of standard graphic design principles and an awareness of current design trends. From a marketing standpoint, infographics are a great way to spread brand awareness. Check out the blog at Mint.com for some good examples.
Confusing infographics are a more complex issue. An infographic has failed if it leaves the reader wondering what a piece of data means or what the moral of the story was.
Designers must take care to choose the appropriate visuals to communicate individual pieces of data. IBM's ManyEyes project does a great job of breaking down some of the core dataviz patterns based on the reasons they should be used. The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods shows a broader swath of approaches (though I'd like to see an updated version with some better examples). To get a feel for the amount of iteration it takes, check out some case studies from the visualization company JESS3.
In addition to choosing appropriate visuals, it's important to provide context and frames of reference. Is 53% good, bad or mediocre? Is 50 million active users more or less than normal? Relevant comparisons are critical in helping readers understand concepts like growth, size, value and frequency.
Once you have some puzzle pieces to play with, start fitting them together until you have an elegant, comprehensible picture. Edit judiciously, but don't be afraid to throw pieces away if they aren't critical to telling your story. "Usability test" your infographics to make sure your message is being conveyed smoothly and clearly.
The third type of bad infographic is the deceiving infographic. These leave the reader feeling confident and understanding the data, but the data is inaccurate – on purpose or by accident. Designers may unintentionally portray data inaccurately if they’ve chosen an inappropriate visualization technique or haven’t double and triple-checked their math. Before creating the infographic, you have to be clear about the scaling and level of precision you need to convey the data honestly. It helps to explain your methodology where feasible and, of course, make reasonable inferences.
Atlantic columnist Megan McArdle recently called companies to task for deliberately using incorrect data to create viral infographics to bump up their search rankings. A number of responses to McArdle's article accused journalists of being part of the problem for spreading infographics via social media without verifying the data and conclusions. It’s only reasonable to expect high-profile figures to check the credibility and accuracy of any infographic before posting or retweeting it.
However, fact-checking and verification isn’t always easy. Although most infographics list their sources, these URLs are frequently placed in the tiny print at the bottom of the graphic. Readers have to squint and retype to track down sources. Many times, it’s unclear which data came from which source if multiple sources are listed. Using footnotes with simple citations (author, title, date, publication/website) would make it much easier to assess the data’s credibility and relevance. Even if the URL changes, readers can still Google the citation information to find the source. A single shortlink leading to a page of reference material would also be a great solution and provide a chance to elucidate methodology that isn't included in the graphic itself. Hunch often does this, and this poster on scholarly tweets adds the nice touch of a QR code since it was designed for print.
With the rise of HTML5 and CSS3, I hope to see infographics made from markup so they are more accessible and can provide easier access to sources. Granted, the main point of infographics is visualization, but that doesn't mean users with screen reading software should be excluded from gleaning the meaning. There's plenty of text used in infographics, but few actually have appropriate alt-text or long-descs to pass along the message. HTML graphics will also allow for interactivity and representation of real-time data. They can still be converted to static images when needed, or embedded similar to YouTube videos to facilitate viral sharing.
- Readers, be skeptical. Infographics are by nature biased, and accuracy is not guaranteed.
- Journalists (and prominent social media figures), check the facts and think before you tweet.
- Businesses, know the potential SEO value of viral infographics, but don’t abuse it. Make sure you have a point, and don't create a graphic just to create a graphic—some things are better said than shown.
- Designers, honor thy data and make it easy to access source material. Respect your audience. And make a New Year's Resolution to learn to code. As some of my colleagues say, CSS3 is the new Photoshop.