Whatever you call them – charts, tables, graphs – there’s been an explosion of info-graphics on the internet and in publications. Everywhere you look, people are designing graphics to represent the overabundance of data being collected. But in the process, sometimes people forget the critical step of sorting and clarifying the story behind the information, and the best way to use the data to tell that story!
Data Visualization Goes Mainstream
Big Picture Communication is currently working on a series of tables and graphics for a client, and it’s brought up some ideas about how to best communicate the information and how much to “design” the data tables.
Currently, we’re in the midst of a major trend were designers are taking content previously expressed through text, photos, and maybe a chart or two, and creating these large poster-type graphically designed images with a mix of eye-catching typography, icons, and some kind of tables or graphs.
Here is an infographic about infographics if you don’t know what I’m referring to:
Problems with Infographcis
Like anything, there are good examples and bad, and like any trend people tend to overdue it for a while until the next thing comes along.
Recently, I read an interesting post by a company that specializes in generating data visualization graphics for web analytics and other data streams, about why they hate infographics. Sure, it’s little bit of click-bait to say something so seemingly contradictory, but they backed it up with some good points:
- “Most of them focus on form rather than substance.” – Too much ‘graphic’, not good ‘info’
- “90% of the infographics out there are baroque, non-selective compositions of facts.” – Throwing a bunch of stats together with icons isn’t valuable.
- “Most infographics are just an experimentation to condense a whole set of information into one single page, rather than performing the difficult task of selecting the useful facts, simplify them, and sort them into a meaningful sequence.” – If it’s not simple, it’s not helpful.
- “Infographics are not DIY” – To make quality infographics, you need the right tools for the job, and many people don’t have these tools.
Not to dwell on the negative, they then focus on aspects of good data visualization. Some of them are a bit more detailed than others, such as, “…the perception of values should only involve decoding lengths and 2D positions. While the perception of relationships should only be based on visual representations of items enclosure, connections, proximity or – at most – shape.” They end up making a good pitch for the evolution of info-graphics, and of course, how they can help! Check them out: http://www.qunb.com/
One key message that emerges from any good discussion on data visualization is the importance of simplification. Liked in the above post is this great GIF explaining how removing and taking away design elements can actually help convey the core information better than busy, cluttered, visually-stimulating design.
If this seems familiar, it’s likely because the entire design world is undergoing a major trend towards “flat” design, with Apple’s new mobile operating system iOS7 being the most familiar example for many readers.
So, back to the original question – are infographics just more visual clutter from inexperienced young designers playing with Photoshop and Illustrator, or are they helpful tools to assist with presenting complex information to a readership with increasingly shortened attention spans?
From climate change charts to Facebook to NSA tracking, Big Data is the new big player in the information age (do people even say that anymore?), and there are more and more examples of how valuable huge volumes of information can be.
Apparently not only do we not have enough skilled data analysts to keep up with the supply of information (Wall Street Journal- Big Data’s Big Problem: Little Talent) the complexity is increasing so much that we barely know how to handle it. (Wired Magazine – Scientific Data Has Become So Complex, We Have to Invent New Math to Deal With It)
Nevertheless, the power of well-designed, well-thought-out infographics seems to outweigh the challenges of their adolescent stage of development. We’re already seeing both a return to simplification, and a maturation process indicating a growing understanding of not just the form but the function as well.
Telling a Story
This past week, as I’ve been working on a series of tables showing a client’s GHG emissions data mapped out against their output production, I’ve really seen how this type of content – charts with multiple values overlapping, for example – can do much more than just make boring spreadsheets more fun to look at. Good infographics actually tell a story. And the best of them, let the reader see the story rather than forcing it on them with excessive labelling or design elements and long captions.
The major pitfall that I’ve seen is simply that there’s too much work going into producing the graphics, and not enough though going into analyzing the core information, the key take-away message, and the story that the information tells. Context is key, as are perspective, and clarity. Without context infographics are just graphs of useless statistics, without perspective it’s nearly impossible to tell what the data visualization is really showing, and without clarity, the readers’ brains can’t even focus on the overwhelming blast of complex content.
Good Examples for your Inspiration
Wired’s 13 Best Infographcis of the Year
Three great data visualization Tumblr blogs I follow, which usually show some of the best one’s I encounter:
Visual Data: http://datarep.tumblr.com/
Datavis by Sunlight: http://sunfoundation.tumblr.com/
Let me know what you think – are these kind of graphics helpful, or just a distraction from the real core information? What are the best one’s you seen?