About two weeks ago I set out to determine what makes a good infographic versus a bad infographic. After reading numerous articles and blog posts on the subject, I gained an overall view of what other individuals thought.
Of course, I already had a view of my own. The prevalence of infographics has certainly grown over the years. I remember when a web search yielded only a few examples – along with simple bar, pie, and growth charts. Now a web search yields a ridiculous amount of examples of all different makes and models.
There are even infographics of infographics, which seems a bit over the top.
I do find infographics useful and visually stimulating. As a designer, taking information and turning it into a visual representation of data, information or knowledge is right up my alley. However, many of the infographics I have come across tend to make my eyes hurt from the amount of data crammed on to a page. In other instances, the infographics are full of random, meaningless facts in no apparent logical order.
As I waded through articles and blog posts alike, one theme in particular kept popping up in one form or another. The summation of the theme was this:
Successful infographics should contain great, interesting, and useful content that sets out to comprehend or solve a problem for time-poor audiences.
My interpretation of this theme is that the infographic must present data in a visual way that is easy to comprehend at a glance. However, as I stated before, most don’t! They are generally complicated. Nine times out of ten, I must carefully read the text accompanying the visuals to ascertain what the infographic is really about. Having to routinely do this leads me to conclude that infographics do anything but save time.
I don’t have an issue with sitting in front of an infographic and discovering the overarching message and the relationship of the presented data. I have always viewed infographics as conversation pieces in which people can debate, counter, or agree on the content.
Two names that seem to be synonymous with infographics or data visualization are Stephen Few and David McCandless. Before I began researching these two individuals I prematurely assumed that they would have similar views and somewhat like minds. All I can say is that I could not have been more wrong. The differences between these two are like oil and water. They just don’t mix.
David McCandless, author of “Information is Beautiful,” is a London-based author, data-journalist and information designer. He is considered the current trendsetter for visually striking infographics. He has been hailed by many as being on the cutting edge of visualizing ideas, issues, knowledge, and data. His mission statement from his blog www.informationisbeautiful.net states:
“Myself, and the rest of the crack team here at Information is Beautiful, are dedicated to distilling the world’s data, information and knowledge into beautiful, interesting and, above all, useful visualizations, infographics and diagrams.”
Here are some samples of David’s work.
“20th Century Death: selected major causes,” by David McCandless. 2013. – Source: Information is Beautiful. 21 May 2014.
“Influ-Venn-Za: Who can catch which flue?” by David McCandless. 2013. – Source: Information is Beautiful. 21 May 2014.
“Timeline of the Far Future,” by iibstudio. 2014. – Source: BBC Future. 21 May 2014.
There is no denying it, the inforgraphics created by David and his team are definitely beautiful and interesting. Hands down, my eyes definitely navigate to the bright colors and organic shapes found in all of his infographics. However, they look more like abstract art that draws you in, but in the end leaves you confused about what you are looking at.
On the other side of the tracks we have Stephen Few. He is a 25 year IT innovator, consultant, and educator who has his own consultancy, Perceptual Edge. He tackles data visualization for analyzing and communicating quantitative business information. He provides consulting and training services, writes a monthly data visualization newsletter, speaks frequently at conferences, and teaches in the MBA program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Stephen Few’s approach to data visualization is more spartan when it comes to added graphical items. He focuses all of his attention on the data and how to make it the most accessible and understandable to the viewer. Stephen’s reasoning for how he approaches a data visualization problem stems from how humans perceive information.
In chapter 35 of Stephen’s book “Data Visualization for Human Perception” he states:
“Data visualization is only successful to the degree that it encodes information in a manner that our eyes can discern and our brains can understand. Getting this right is much more a science than an art, which we can only achieve by studying human perception. The goal is to translate abstract information into visual representations that can be easily, efficiently, accurately, and meaningfully decoded.”*
Here are some samples of Stephen’s work.
“The UK Budget Deficit Compared to Other Big Amounts of Money,” by Stephen Few. 2004-2014. – Source: Perceptual Edge. 21 May 2014.
“Employee Responses Regarding Company Goals,” by Stephen Few. 2004-2014. – Source: Perceptual Edge. 21 May 2014.
“Global Causes of Lost Life,” by Stephen Few. 2004-2014. – Source: Perceptual Edge. 21 May 2014.
There are other prominent infographic/data visualization designers in the world, but I wanted to focus on David McCandles and Stephen Few because they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Stephen Few has literally written volumes on the subject of data visualization and the more I read the more I am convinced his line of thinking is the way to go. As a designer, though, I find his charts and diagrams lack that hook to draw people in or to catch their eye, which David McCandless has achieved in his work. In an ideal world we could perfectly marry Stephen’s scientific/analytical approach and David’s graphical approach to data visualization. Then we would have the best of both worlds.
So what makes a good infographic?
Is it David McCandless’ view of “distilling the world’s data, information and knowledge into beautiful, interesting and, above all, useful visualizations, infographics and diagrams.”
Is it Stephen Few’s view, “translate abstract information into visual representations that can be easily, efficiently, accurately, and meaningfully decoded.”
Perhaps it is a little of both.
A successful infographic contains useful information that can be translated into visual representations. These representations must tell the story, revealing and highlighting connections. The viewer should be able to easily, efficiently, accurately, and meaningfully decode the information.
* Few, Stephen (2013): Data Visualization for Human Perception. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Available online at http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/data_visualization_for_human_perception.html