You know what would be great? Some infographics.

Posted on August 16, 2012 12:47 pm by | Visual Communication

the visual display of quantitative information
Image (c) CanStock Photos
There’s so much content crossing my feeds these days, I would welcome anything that might save me time while helping me grasp complex quantitative information. I wish more organizations would adopt infographics as a way to provide that ability to comprehend what data means in a glance.

What’s that you say? We’re swimming in oceans of infographics?

Not so, and the fact that just about everyone calls them infographics doesn’t make it so.

An infographic is (to borrow the book title from infographic master Edward Tufte) the visual display of quantitative information. On the very first page of the very first chapter of that classic coffee-table book, Tufte lists the criteria for graphical data displays. They should, he writes…

  • Show the data
  • induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than the methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say
  • Present many numbers in a small space
  • Make large data sets coherent
  • Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure
  • Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration
  • Be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set

Most of the art that passes for infographics these days do virtually none of these things. Tufte argues that “graphics reveal data.” The endlessly scrolling towers of numerals slapped on top of images we see everywhere do nothing of the kind. In fact, most of them are the polar opposite of what an infographic should be.

In a post to her blog, visual design consultant Connie Malamed labels these eyesores as infoposters, “a graphic that conveys multiple segments of information typically using words and numbers to represent quantitative data.”

PR counselor Doug Haslam has been poulating a pinboard on Pinterest he calls Infographic Crimes Against Humanity. By way of example, here’s one on social media training for employees. Love it or hate it (and I’m with Doug on this one), it’s an infoposter. Despite the headline on Ragan’s HealthCare News, it doesn’t come close to being an infographic:

Not an Infographic

I would display the entire monstrosity, but it would take up more space than this entire post.

For comparison’s sake, take a look at this 1861 infographic from Charles Joseph Minard, which visually conveys the staggering number of soldiers Napolean lost during his Russian campaign. Tufte calls it “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

Napolean's Russia Campaign

Tufte explains, “Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.” (Tufte offers a gorgeous frame-ready poster of this infographic for sale.)

Without question, it’s quicker and easier to throw text and the occasional bar or pie chart on a tower graphic and call it a day. I find, however, that it takes just as much time to scroll through these tedious graphics and try to make sense of mish-mash of images, numbers and narrative text as it would to read an article.

With all the data we’re producing, surely organizations can take the time to craft meaningful infographics that do what they’re supposed to: efficiently communicate complex quantitative ideas.

There are examples, but they represent a drop in the ocean of the infoposters polluting the web these days. This one shows the cost of land per square foot in Manhattan (found on another of Haslam’s pinboards, Infographics I like.

If you want to stand out from the flood of infoposter mediocrity, make up your mind to produce true infographics. They take more time and effort, but the payoff will be huge.



  • 1.Oh dear... my dark secret is at the core, I am an Economist. I could discuss graphs until my those around me die from boredom. At first I thought you were being sarcastic, we're coming down on the hype cycle for infographics (the cool kids are now cool for saying they suck, and the Mass Market is realizing how cool they are).

    I shouldn't be surprised at you breaking out Tufte, yet again showing your knowledge far ahead of the Mass Market. Thanks for the tip on Infoposter, I like that, some of these are so huge!

    I haven't thought much about the latest popular trend, but one thing that comes to mind is try to be like Tufte and use your graph to simplify the story of complex statistics - make it easy to see trends or inflection points that would normally be invisible if they were buried in a table.

    On the other hand, avoid being like a USA Today pie chart in it's simplicity, or worse yet like a corporate infographic that uses abstraction to hide statistically irrelevant studies or try and make what you are promoting look legitimate.

    John J. Wall | August 2012 | Boston

  • 2.Well stated, Shel! I, too, am so tired of seeing so-called "infographics" that fail most of Tufte's points. Too many people seem to be throwing whatever dreck they can into an image because "infographics are cool" and "infographics will get passed along" without thinking about the fundamental question - *does* the graphic help tell your story better?

    Thanks for raising this topic and for the links.

    Dan York | August 2012

  • 3.Totally agree. I blogged about the problem of bad infographics back in 2010 when this amusing one made a similar point:

    Since then the problem has got worse.

    Stuart Bruce | August 2012 | Leeds, UK

  • 4.InfoPosters are the 140 character equivalent of InfoGraphics. :-)

    But even though the status quo of InfoGraphics is not generally in the Tufte envelope, it's inaccurate to suggest they have no value. Tweets are not blog posts but they certainly help call attention to more details.

    Isn't it possible that (well-designed) InfoPoster's serve an important role at the rim of the attention funnel?

    At a different level, isn't there is a segment of information consumers who do not have the time or skills to benefit from elegant, highly detailed analytical story-telling?

    Furthermore, is it right to assume that InfoGraphics should only be used to convey complex data? Where is it written that simple ideas and data shouldn't be broadcast in ways that tell stories even more simply (and more efficiently)?

    Bill French | August 2012 | Keystone, CO

  • 5.Certainly, Bill, some infoposters are fine and do a good job. Unfortunately, most are unattractive, require ceaseless scrolling, distort the data they purport to display, and require just as much time as it would take to read an article in order to consume them -- which is the opposite of your 140-character analogy. Sure, it's possible to create a great and useful infoposter. Most of them don't fit that category, sadly.

    Shel Holtz | August 2012

  • 6.Shel,

    Thanks for your response.

    I don't have a problem slamming poorly designed communication artifacts, so I agree with your article's premise. Adopting narrow definition of "InfoGraphic" is where I have issues.

    There is certainly a vast abundance of crappy and misleading tweets, just as there are crappy InfoGraphics (and InfoPosters if indeed we can agree there are two distinct categories). I personally believe InfoPosters are a unique sliver of InfoGraphic that is generally useful to an audience that is fringe or even adjacent to the InfoGraphic audience.

    As your article and comment indicate, there's no shortage of misleading InfoGraphics and InfoPosters. I agree with your points.

    Sometimes visually distorted conclusions are unintentional, created by folks who perhaps don't have the skills to visually articulate with precision and without bias. Most distortions, however, are probably intentional. Whatever vehicle these parties might choose to convey complex or simple data, would be distorted. This is not exclusive to the domain of InfoGraphics of course.

    That said, I think it's time for an online Snopes-like social site to debate the topography of InfoGraphics; e.g., a skeptics guide to the InfoGraphics universe. I think this idea has legs and perhaps it already exists.

    As you can tell from my open (and biased) comments, I have greater interest in InfoPosters for two reasons (i) they are useful for story-centric visualizations as opposed to data-centric visualizations, and (ii) they can help people who are overwhelmed with incoming information, thus enabling them to rapidly comprehend new or previously poorly communicated ideas; even ideas that are complex.

    It's my position that the term "InfoPoster" should not be synonymous with"crappy InfoGraphic". ;-)

    As for the excessively lengthy posters and graphics - I agree, it's an obnoxious obligation to place on any reader armed only with a track-pad or mouse. However, yesterday's poorly-designed UX may be giving way to todays emerging model for gesture-driven triage, discovery, and review processes.

    Consuming a lengthy poster (InfoGraphic or otherwise) is a terrible experience on most PCs and Macs. But it's not so terrible with a Magic Mouse or gesture-supported track-pad (and the skills to operate it). It's really not bad at all on an iPad. Pinch and zoom gestures also provide unique opportunities for gaining greater insights and quickly focusing on specific aspects of a poster.

    And adjacent to the idea that lengthy posters are simply bad UI designs, we can see mobile apps taking stabs at new ways to [visually] peruse every-day collections of artifacts such as news, email messages, BI charts, and cloud-based file collections.

    This new breed of apps which include Zite, FileBoard, and YellowFin (BI), are each dipping their respective big toes into user experiences that include [seemingly] endless scrolling regions. Even blog publishing tools are starting to show up with bottomless scrolling features.

    In these new apps we can find evidence of visual queues that attempt to take overwhelming volumes of information and distill them in ways that support faster triage, better discovery, and rapid understanding.

    These trends are likely driven by the emergence of gesture-based UIs and all indications suggest these UXs are successful, and for the most part, appreciated by users.

    Bill French | August 2012 | United States

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