At their best, information graphics can be informative, exciting, and attractive. At their worst, they can be misleading, overdesigned, and empty. Infographics are still in their infancy, with a lot of untapped potential. Ideas from visualization can help figure out a future that is much more exciting.
Imagine a slider to control the amount of decoration in an infographic: 0 for no decoration, 1 for the maximum amount possible. Most current infographics are close to 1, with a lot decoration applied. For an infographic to be interesting and compelling, there is clearly a minimum of decoration that is necessary. However, I believe that much of it is gratuitous and unnecessary, and not only distracts from the message, but undermines it.
Let’s look at the other end of the scale: no decoration. This is where visualization sits. In fact, I think that data visualization is a true subset of infographics. What else is a visualization than a graphic that informs? And if it doesn’t inform, how can it be a visualization? In addition to being bare, though, visualizations are also general, i.e., they do not care what data they depict.
As Jakob Jochmann points out, a lot of focus in making infographics is currently on attracting clicks and eyeballs, also known as “SEO juice.” That’s really too bad, because that shifts the priorities away from being informative and towards shiny, colorful, and maybe controversial, but not useful.
When you look at the work of people like Nigel Holmes, the difference in priorities becomes obvious. You can argue whether he is dressing his graphics up too much, but there is never an attempt to hide the shallowness of the message or the lack of data behind pretty pictures. The message is front and center, reinforced by the metaphors and graphical treatment. In a sense, that is quite efficient: there is ample decoration, but it serves a clear purpose. A lot of infographics you see on the web these days not only have lots of decoration, but useless decoration.
In addition, there is also an underlying dishonesty: infographics often only serve as click-bait for people surfing the web while they’re bored. They have no intent to inform, and thus have no value to the viewer. They’re ads, plain and simple.
Infographics are not only often shallow, but almost always static. You can usually get all the information from them with a few glances, and then you’re done. Sure, there may be some clever little graphical jokes hidden, but you’re not going to learn more about what the story is actually about.
I envision a future of infographics that go well beyond the handful of numbers from questionable sources that are currently the norm. How about interactive infographics? Why can’t the graphical flourishes lure me into some interesting little story, but then provide tons of background data for me to explore? What about showing alternative explanations? Why not let me focus in on a particular area or data range of interest (like that amazing yet simple New York Times visualization of the jobless rate)? What about providing me with the underlying data so I can play with it myself, rather than hiding behind some nondescript “data sources” in tiny fonts on the bottom?
For graphics to be truly informative, they have to be interactive. There is nothing like being able to ask your own questions if you want to really understand something. A particularly interesting approach is Bret Victor’s KillMath project, especially his explorable explanations. His focus is on math rather than on data, but I don’t see why the same ideas can’t be applied to data. Spend some time with his interactive widgets and then tell me that today’s infographics are adequate. You will never look at static depictions of data the same way again.
Visualization has developed the tools for rich exploration and interaction. So far, the focus is still largely on exploration and analysis. But there is a huge opportunity to apply these to the much broader area of informing people by presenting data. Visualization alone is not the solution, but neither are shiny, colorful graphics. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, and it will take the combined smarts of visualization people and designers to find it.