Monday, January 13, 2014

Article about "infographics" gets everything wrong

I wrote about infographics propaganda yesterday. Right after that, my friend Nigel Hawtin, from New Scientist magazine, sent me a link to this article by Raj Kamal, published by VisualLoop. I've repeatedly praised VisualLoop's efforts to promote visualization and infographics but, at the risk of sounding ranty (sorry), I need to say that this one gets everything wrong. Dangerously wrong. This is the most brazen paragraph:
“The thought starts with the message and then gets into putting other related information together to support it instead of starting with the data and thinking of what to make of it – the message. The advantage of taking this route is also that you are not just restricted by topics or numbers or just presenting ‘news’. You can go a step further and air your ‘views’ too to make a point.”
Whoa! This is exactly what I warned against in Nature Methods a while ago. Let me write it again: If you really want to be an infographics or visualization designer, you should never begin with a preconceived idea and then look just for some data here and there to support it. You can begin with an idea, but you must earnestly look for evidence that could contradict it. You do need to read all data available, analyze them, study them, and understand them. Only then you can design your graphic. No matter how just your cause is, no matter how interested you are in social change or in doing good with data (a worthy goal!) following Kamal's suggestions will only lead you astray. Infographics designers shouldn't act as marketing drones or blindfolded activists. They need to bring science, maths, and logic to their thinking process (some reading suggestions.) No exceptions.

What Kamal's article promotes is an infographics philosophy dominated by pretty pictures based on scant data, messages backed by spotty evidence, hollow displays of visual "creativity" that can be profoundly dishonest. This is a philosophy in which coming up with a good "concept" is more important than being truthful and thorough. Unfortunately, no amount of visual fluff will ever make up for a deep lack of substance.

Rant mode off.

Poster by Raj Kamal