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On Infographics

I’m about to take a fairly unpopular (and probably self-contradictory) stance: I think infographics have jumped the shark.

I’m not talking about any particular piece of data visualization, though the new metafilter one pushed me over the edge, rather I’m talking about the entire phenomenom of turning a whole bunch of information into a pretty, but mostly incomprehensible, picture and presenting it to the world. Not that they’re all useless, on occasion I do find data displayed in such a way that it is made more comprehensible, but more often than not I find these things to be disposable pieces of content created to impress the viewer into a sort of submissive state where they pass judgement on a purely aesthetic level.

Now creating something for purely aesthetic purposes is certainly not a problem. I like pretty things as much as the next guy, but these things are presented as having some sort of higher purpose of helping people to better understand some large dataset. Which they hardly ever do, since that would require people spending enough time with them to actually understand the point they’re trying to make.

While I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, it really came together when I read this quote from Jaron Lanier about WikiLeaks: “A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid.”

Where I struggle with this a little, is that it feels fairly contradictory to some of the stuff I wrote in Everything is Media, specifically the bit about people too often focusing on content instead of the medium. It seems to me that that’s exactly what an infographic does best: Wrap a bunch of not-so-interesting content in a bow that’s pretty enough that you take your attention off what’s inside and instead focus on the pretty bow. Oooohh … Pretty. Look at that chart. Look how big they made that number. Which makes me wonder what the real content of an infographic is. I suspect it’s something like: “Hey, we’re smart and with it and super in touch with what’s going on on the web, that’s how we knew all the kids were doing data viz.” That’s what the big companies who are throwing them up on the web are doing (I can’t think of a good example of this right now … maybe Sprint?). Then there’s that infographic-as-art, which the New York Times has nailed (for these, the info is so obviously secondary to the graphic that they feel more like New Yorker Comics than something born out of a quarterly report). But that still leaves me conflicted about something like what Metafilter put out. I mean it’s not bad or evil and it made people happy, I guess I just wonder why. What is it about information presented in this way that makes people want to share it even though I suspect very few of those tweeting the link could recite back any specific datapoint (I know I can’t … except maybe the one Waxy mentioned in his link). So what gives?

Update (1/26/11): I was just going through my spam comments and noticed one in there from none other than Matt Haughey, creator of Metafilter. Matt points to the original discussion, which I totally missed, and adds quite a bit more context to the Metafilter graphic: “While I’m not a fan of the plethora of infographics available online these days (and lame SEO attempts to capitalize on them), I decided to make a tongue-in-cheek infographic for MetaFilter, and as everyone behind the scenes at Team MeFi scrambled in the last week to gather up all the interesting statistics we could, I threw it all into photoshop to produce this: The 2010 Year In MetaFilter Infographic. Enjoy!”

January 3, 2011

Comments

  • Bud Caddell says:

    Tend to agree that they’re overdone. Marketers know they spread, so there is a glut of bad data vis out there.

    You should read this gent’s post and blog –
    http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/blog/

  • Steve Portigal says:

    Oh, goodness, yes! Thanks for saying this. I think all the parody/post-modern infographics (i.e., blogs that publish a stream of Venn diagrams of normal human interactions in a wry fashion) are an expression of that shark-jumpedness. Fast Company’s infographic of the day is pretty much my textual cue to DO NOT BOTHER TO READ THIS. So, yeah. Thank you.

  • Adam says:

    Best post of 2011!

  • Adam Singer says:

    Hey Noah – have you seen this infographic from Nathan? http://flowingdata.com/2010/02/15/data-underload-9-big-graphic-blueprint/

    I think it nails the point of what you are saying about infographics that use *too much* data.

  • Andy says:

    Hey Noah,

    I think infographics as a ‘meme’ (if you’ll excuse my clumsy use of the word) have evolved in the wrong direction.

    Dave McCandless’ book title ‘information is beautiful’ can be interpreted in two ways:
    1. That graphically represented, data can be aesthetically pleasing
    2. That graphically represented, data can reveal exciting truths

    I think the shark-jumping you speak of is a result of people following route 1 rather than route 2 – and as you point out, the value of this is limited.

    Happy New Year!

  • Magda says:

    I love information design but couldn’t agree with you more.

    Do you know why most infographics are bad? Because designers who make them are heavily recruited based purely on aesthetics.

    The truth is, only a fraction of those creating infographics for the web are actually information designers who know how to extract meaning from data rather than just making it pretty.

    If you look closely many are extremely flawed with how they visualize data, and are quite inaccurate.

  • Robert Hempsall – Information Designer says:

    Great post Noah.

    Two things from me:

    Firstly, on the terminology, the trend now seems to be to call everything in this field an infographic. I’m sure, thinking back only a few years, infographics/information graphics were designed with the aim of communicating instructions to people with low literacy levels, or interpreting information in a foreign language – airline safety cards being a well know example.

    Mostly, the newer designs are actually data visualisations, and on the whole, the recent slew of data visualisations seem to be there to attract people to information that they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in. If people wanted to know the data that’s presented, in many cases there are more understandable ways of doing so.

  • Noah Brier says:

    I love this comment from the blog Bud recommended: “Similarly, graphical methods have truly arrived when journalists use graphs to make ordinary, unexceptional points in a clearer way. When making a graph, and including it in an article, is easy enough that it’s done as a matter of course.” He’s commenting on a shit simple bar graph. :)

  • Ted Rheingold says:

    The infographic is on the verge of evolving into something that will make them much more common.

  • orangeguru says:

    I think the whole “infographics” area should be renamed to InfoPr0n, since it’s all about fake excitement.

    In general “designers” no longer do “simple”, everything has to be awesome today. From motion graphics (in news) to diagrams and other info pollution.

  • orangeguru says:

    I think the whole “infographics” area should be renamed to InfoPr0n, since it’s all about fake excitement.

    In general “designers” no longer do “simple”, everything has to be awesome today. From motion graphics (in news) to diagrams and other info pollution.

  • Matt Haughey says:

    Hey there, I’m the guy that built MetaFilter and made the infographic. I don’t know if you saw the discussion post on MetaFilter about it, but the format and layout were done purposely as a joke, to mock the overabundance of infographics you see these days. They’re somewhat famous on Digg and Reddit for being heavily linked and discussed things so much that companies (like Mint.com) pay dorks to make dumb infographics about mundane stuff in the hopes of improving their SEO/search engine standing by getting everyone to link to their site.

    I run MetaFilter, and we get gamed from time to time by these sleazier infographic traffic attempts, so it was tongue firmly in cheek that I chose to use their method to present a year in review in that format.

    I’d agree with you that they jumped the shark sometime last summer. There are whole dedicated sites to promoting them, even a Daily Infographic one. There are also famous backlash versions like this and this.

    Like you also said, there are good uses of data in graphical forms, but that’s really a hard science called data visualization. Infographics are like the idiot’s 30-second soundbite version of a 10-part 20 hour documentary of data visualization.

  • Phil Adams says:

    When I left university I shared a house with a friend. I went straight into advertising, he into management consultancy.

    I’d sometimes tease him about the complex visual models that he’d be preparing for a client presentation. “What’s the point of a picture if it takes more than a thousand words to explain it?” I’d ask.

    I’d agree that a lot of recent infographic output has strayed into this territory.

    It’s interesting that you highlight the NYT, because it published one of my favourite pieces of data visualisation – http://projects.nytimes.com/crime/homicides/map – the homicide map of New York City. This takes a wealth of data and turns it into useful, interactive pictures. And the interpretation of the data is in the hands of the user.

    Maybe those are the main problems with some infographics – a lot of them are static visuals that don’t allow for interaction, and in too many cases the graphic design only allows for one (subjective) interpretation of the data.

  • Tim Letscher says:

    I had the privilege of seeing Edward Tufte about a decade ago and he rightly railed against what he calls, “chartoonery.” Making something “pretty” does not make it informative or meaningful.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Tim Letscher says:

    I had the privilege of seeing Edward Tufte about a decade ago and he rightly railed against what he calls, “chartoonery.” Making something “pretty” does not make it informative or meaningful.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Tim Letscher says:

    I had the privilege of seeing Edward Tufte about a decade ago and he rightly railed against what he calls, “chartoonery.” Making something “pretty” does not make it informative or meaningful.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Tim Letscher says:

    I had the privilege of seeing Edward Tufte about a decade ago and he rightly railed against what he calls, “chartoonery.” Making something “pretty” does not make it informative or meaningful.

    Thanks for the post.

  • barbara says:

    Thanks to Tim Letscher (and Edward Tufte) — “chartoonery” is the best new word I’ve heard in years!

  • Greg Brown says:

    I think the recent spate of infographics (as well as over 90% of Tumblr trends) can be attributed to the internet increasingly valuing what I’d call “glance-value.”

    information that would otherwise have to be processed and judged serially suddenly seems to be parallelized by turning it into an infographic, allowing someone to quickly glance at it and get a sense of what it’s saying and reblog it or pass it on. Of course, they often don’t get the true sense of the data, and this method is ripe for popularizing half-baked arguments.

    Other examples include GIFs as a constrained art form, sudden juxtapositions like the homeless radio-voice, pithy quotes over pictures, etc.

  • Noah Brier says:

    Thanks for all the awesome comments everyone …

  • Jason says:

    I tried to make this very argument in a meeting the other day, all I got were blanks looks. One of the designers decided to make an elaborate “info graph” about consumer trends and it was just confusing, not to mention wrong.

    It looked nice, but I could have summed up what he was trying to say in about two sentences. I was then ceremoniously banished to proof read data tables, ah, the life of a lowly intern.

  • Nate Davis says:

    Hear hear. As Aaron Levenstein famously put it, “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” And in the age of infographics, the bikinis get better and better looking–but they’re not necessarily more revealing.

    But what I think is even more pernicious than passing merely aesthetic judgement on some brightly-colored visual gewgaw is the superficial sense of understanding that infographics tend to promote. (I think Patron Saint Tufte may have touched on this, in saying that in some cases he’d rather have a numeric table than a chart.) To analogize to a moribund medium, think of USA Today vs. the Wall Street Journal–or perhaps more accurately, the Economist. Or for a more current comparison, people peeping a graphic and thinking they know about something is like people learning Free Bird on Guitar Hero and thinking they can play like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

    Here’s to more words and numbers, and fewer pictures in 2011.

  • Wyzyrd says:

    A (good) picture is worth a thousand (crappy) words. A hundred (well-chosen) words are worth a thousand (crappy) pictures. “You pays your money and takes your chances” Management likes pictures – the “oooo… bright lights, pretty pictures” phenomenon, again. That particular shark got jumped WAY before the Fonz ever got on skis

  • eden resort albufeira says:

    Very good

  • Buddy Yingling says:

    I was thinking about how stupid many infographics are and stumbled upon these…

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/01/the-infographic-infograph_n_829394.html

    http://www.businessesgrow.com/tag/stupid-infographics/

    and then I found your blog post.

    I thought you might like these.

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