2010, apparently, was the year of the infographic. Huzzah. We’re most of the way through 2011, and it seems like that too has been a year in which it’s hard to move online for visualised data of one kind of another. Whether it’s homespun junk clogging up the internet on one of the ever-spawning 10 Infographics You Must See! type pages or the professionally produced quality work at Information is Beautiful, there are a lot of infographics going round. So what separates the good from the bad? What makes a good infographic?
At the risk of stating the flipping obvious, there are two parts to an infographic: information and graphics. Information is the data or concepts that are the meat of the visualisation. A good infographic represents information that is hard to understand in other formats – say, a whole bunch of really big numbers, or a tangled web of interactions and events.
The other half is the visual design. The design has to be informative, and clear. Successful infographics often make strong use of colour, white-space, easily understood icons – classic design elements all, and I like a lot of infographics purely for the visuals as much as the actual data they represent.
The third element is a synthesis of the two. Good infographics often make clear the relationship between difficult concepts or large data sets by representing them in terms of colour, or size, or space, or layout. They look attractive, but also tell you something.
This elusive third half is what a lot of infographics lack. It’s relatively easy to think of an idea then make it look nice, or to arrange a whole pile of data on a page so it looks nice. But the strength (some would say: the point) of infographics is to bring something else to the party, not just good looks or a mountain-o-stats. The best infographics help you contextualise something you could never conceive of in the abstract.
(A snippet of the Billion Pound O Gram from Information is Beautiful)
The Billion Pound O Gram from Information is Beautiful is a great example. Trying to listen to someone talk about so many billions of pounds is futile – there are only so many zeroes your brain can take in before you want to die, or at least before such huge numbers stop making sense (if they ever did).
But this infographic takes those numbers and contextualises them, lets you see them relative to each other, all in an attractive, easy-to-understand format. You can explore the data, poring over the image to discover little titbits you’d never have thought about before, or would even have considered doing if someone had presented you with the same data in a list, or spreadsheet.
A lot of other “infographics” are either all info or all graphic. There’s a whole series I’ve seen that purports to represent various different schools of thought. They’re all about “explaining philosophy through basic shapes”.
(Image from Society 6, where you can buy a copy if you feel the need)
They don’t. This graphic is in no way informative – at most it’s a pretty weak visual pun: Positivism. Plus sign. Right?
I feel that this kind of infographic is pretty pointless – it’s the kind that are swamping the web, the same way that you can’t turn round without someone trying to flog you a Keep Calm rip-off with some poorly written crap on it.
A few years ago GraphJam (or something like it, I forget the name) used to be funny. It took the trend of pointless visualisations and twisted it back on itself, using pie charts and graphs churned out by Powerpoint to represent completely inappropriate things like lyrics from rap songs. Now the trend of “funny” chartjunk has come full circle and those sites are full of pointless shit graphs representing nothing except a lack of wit. It’s a shame, but these memes do tend to end up eating themselves.
Of course, that’s not to say that infographics aren’t useful – well thought-out, well designed and useful infographics are great. But when it comes to helping people understand information and data, they’re only one tool in a much bigger box of tricks.