Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Random thoughts on infographics, simplification, and the revolting 10 seconds rule

In what sense is this infographic "easy" to read, exactly?

A few random thoughts: When surfing the Web in search for good and bad information graphics and visualization examples, it is not hard to feel sympathy for Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz's rant, published a while ago. Just try to understand the pie chart above and evoke with me:

"The fact is that these monstrosities are not infographics. These atrocities are crimes against good taste and everything that infographics really should be. They're just a bunch of statistics jammed together on horrible vertical pages, bloated with bad drawings and clipart created by primitive monkeys using CorelDRAW! 1.0—graphical disgraces that most often disguise spam, commissioned by iniquitous companies looking to increase traffic to their sites."

It's been a while since marketing and PR agencies started taking over the very word "infographic", which twenty years ago was mostly used to refer to charts, maps, and diagrams in newspapers and magazines. Nowadays, if you go to Google and search for "best infographics", you will find endless collections of the horrors Diaz mentioned. Many of them are bad not because they look terrible (some of them do, of course, others don't) but because they don't live up to their own hype. According to this article, for instance, "more than any other method, infographics convey data quickly and attractively." That's certainly not the case of the examples there, which are muddled, busy, and difficult to read. 
Besides, that same piece reminded me of some managing editors I've had to deal with in the past, as it echoes a sentiment I've come to profoundly despise:

For a good visual to work, it needs to get its message across in ten seconds or less."

Well, it does, but only if your infographic is going to be used as a promotional tool 
—an ad— and not as a visual display of evidence. The problem with this kind of articles is that too many managers in news media (who should know better, but don't) tend to equate marketing infographics with traditional infographics: they go to Visual.ly, see some colorful and fun compositions, and ask their designers to mimic their style: cute, ininteligible, and shallow stuff that can be "easily digested", gorged as fast-food, and not savored and enjoyed thoroughly and slowly, as good meals should be. To fight this way of thinking, let's remember what William Cleveland said in one of his classics:

"The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all."

Cleveland was writing about scientific visualizations and graphs, but his words can be applied to any area: while it is true that a good graphic should attract the audience's attention, the same way a good headline does, its superficial beauty should be just an entry point to a deep discussion of the topic at hand. Most of the infographics we see online today are the equivalent of writing a news story that offers just a headline and a short lead, and nothing else after that: no context, no background, no opportunities to delve into the information.

Some of the agencies that advertise their
infographics services are hilarious pools of self-contradiction. There are usually great mismatches between what they say they do and what they actually do. Take this one (PDF):

Here's how the company describes its goals:

"Meidata provides senior managers with accurate business information to support decision making process. 
One of Meidata's advantages is the advanced visual presentations of analysis findings and data. The unique infographics of Meidata assists senior managers by enabling clear presentation of large amounts of information. Our infographics save time for senior managers and assists in conducting clear messages through the organization."

It may well be that this poster looks nice on a wall but, analysis? What kind of insight does that display provide when some of the forms chosen to encode the data go against efficiency standards? 
(Namely, if you want to compare with precision, don't use circles.) Would you want to work for a company whose senior management uses such a thing to analyze its data? I wouldn't.

Regarding the "simplification" information graphics apparently
facilitate, and that I discuss (critically) in The Functional Art, here's a quote from an amazing essay by Reif Larsen:

"A large part of the infographic’s intrinsic appeal seems to lie in its visual reductionism of complex information. Reductionism itself is not inherently bad—in fact, it’s an essential part of any kind of synthesis, be it mapmaking, journalism, particle physics, or statistical analysis. The problem arises when the act of reduction—in this case rendering data into an aesthetically elegant graphic—actually begins to unintentionally oversimplify, obscure, or warp the author’s intended narrative, instead of bringing it into focus."

As Nigel Holmes said once: information graphics should not simplify; they should clarify. There's a huge difference between those two words. Infographics 
don't "illustrate information that would be unwieldy or extremely boring in text form" (reference). If you think like that, you should choose a different career. What infographics must do is to allow you to see beyond what bare eyes can see, reveal trends and patterns, let you gaze the invisible, in general. That's what they are for.