Friday, September 6, 2013

The Best American Infographics

One of the most effective techniques to teach and learn how to design information graphics is to analyze good and bad examples. The bad ones are suitable for constructive discussions on how to improve them; the good ones inspire students and prompt them to develop their skills. I usually devote a couple of weeks each semester to talk about both kinds (see teaching plans and syllabi.)

In the second or third week of class I bring my collection of Malofiej Awards books —1, 2, 3,— and Rendgen's massive Information Graphics. I give a book to each student, and ask them to choose their favorite infographic, critique it, and present it to their peers. This semester I'm adding The Best American Infographics 2013 to the stack (full disclosure: I'm part of the "brain trust" the author, Gareth Cook, put together to decide what to include.)

I must admit that I'm not fond of all the projects showcased in the book. A good portion of them are confusing, and a few are not even real infographics*, but the others are either insightful, beautiful, surprising, or creative; the best ones, of course, are insightful and beautiful. All the usual suspects can be found here: The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Magazine, Scientific American, etc., but also a few unexpected ones. The variety of work is amazing, too. There are data-driven charts and maps, flow diagrams3D illustrations, visual explanations, creative interactive presentations, and even motion graphics.

The book opens with essays by Cook himself and David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, who proves to be quite knowledgeable about the visual display of information. If you don't believe me, read this:
"The graphic nature of these pieces helps them function as metaphors (...) We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things an concepts they stand for —to use them as malleable conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then —whammo!— a pattern emerges, and we've arrived someplace we would never have gotten to by any other means."
*Cook is prescient in the Foreword when he writes "I have no doubts that purists will have their objections." Indeed!