The Fascinating World of (Good) Infographics

How A Cell Phone Call Works

Information graphics (infographics) have gotten a bad rep lately because of a sudden wave of badly designed, uninformative graphics. But when they are done right, infographics can be both highly informative and enjoyable to look at and discover. Here are a few recent examples to demonstrate that.

Putting Things in Perspective

Perhaps the most obvious use of infographics is giving readers a sense of scale. This is a very typical use in magazine and newspaper articles, where the purpose of the infographic is to provide some perspective on the numbers mentioned in an article.

Virgin Galactic

This is also interesting when it gives people a way to verify claims, like in this example about Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights. Where exactly space begins is a matter of definition, but the comparison to many other types of objects provides a perspective that makes it easier to understand something that is way outside our normal experience. The additional bar on the far rights also shows just how far away geosynchronous satellites really are, much farther away than the International Space Station or even GPS satellites.

Most infographics contain some numeric data, but their focus is never pure visualization. The example above is essentially a bar chart. But would be nearly as interesting and informative if it were just a bunch of bars?

Knowing What You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know

What do you know about potatoes? Most of us eat them every day, yet we haven’t the slightest idea about when and how they grow, etc. A good infographic can explain something you never even bothered asking about, and makes you want to know more.

The Potato Lifecycle

Potatoes, right? You didn’t expect that you’d want to learn more about them when you started reading this.

Explanation

The best use, though, is explanation. The combination of graphics and text can make complicated facts easy to understand, and at the same time be visually compelling enough to attract and hold the reader’s attention. A well-designed infographic will lead you through its contents without much effort, and keep you interested until you’ve read the entire thing.

How A Cell Phone Call Works

The thumbnail above is only a small part of a much larger infographic that explains how cell networks work, how calls are routed, what the difference between TDMA and CDMA is, etc. It’s quite impressive how much they have packed into this one graphic without it being overwhelming.

Infographics About Bad Infographics

The recent flood of bad infographics is interesting because I think it shows what happens when people get access to tools they don’t know how to use, and start imitating what they have seen elsewhere without understanding. This leads to a kind of cargo cult that uses the same language but that does not make any sense.

These infographics and visualizations are easy to recognize, though:

  • They throw together random facts without a story and without much of a connection between them.
  • They use pie and bar charts to cheaply get the nice graphics real designers draw by hand.
  • They leave you feeling empty and clueless about the purpose of the graphic.

Of course, there are infographics that makes these points much better than I could in writing.

Infographics

Click for larger versions, especially of the one below.

The Insipid World of Infographics

Comments

  1. Jeff Weir says

    Why is the potato infographic good? The polar graph takes a heck of a lot of study to unravel. I’d plot this in a gantt-style layout myself.

  2. August M. says

    J. Weir–

    I am the creator of the potato lifecycle infographic. I chose to represent the information in this way because the planting of a garden happens cyclically. Although I acknowledge the benefit of the Gantt-style for this type of data, I felt as though the relationships between data sets were stronger, and yielded a unique appearance.

    Edward Tufte would have my head for this one, though – much of the data is distorted substantially (i.e. The “maincrop” takes six months to grow, but the “Christmas” potatoes only take about four months. The “maincrop” still visually appears like a longer amount of time.)

    R. Kosara–

    Thank you for featuring this graphic on your site! I am currently a student of graphic design, and this kind of exposure is very rewarding. My Flickr photo stream seems to have had a sudden jump in activity.

  3. says

    The garden and its lifecycle are cyclical, by definition. However, a large fraction of the cycle spans winter, when nothing is going on.

    It makes sense in this case to break the cycle during this period of inactivity, and New Year’s falls at a convenient spot. People are used to looking at January to December timelines, knowing that January 1 follows December 31.

    The January to December Gantt style chart would show your data much more clearly, with less distortion, and no concepts (i.e., regarding the cyclical nature of the potato lifecycle) would be shortchanged.

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