The Fascinating World of (Good) Infographics
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.
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.
Potatoes, right? You didn't expect that you'd want to learn more about them when you started reading this.
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.
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.
Click for larger versions, especially of the one below.