What is an “Infographic”?

by on July 5, 2011

I see that Stephen Few has now encountered the work of David McCandless and, as I expected, has rather a lot to say about how bad it is.

He’s not alone in thinking that McCandless’s work as minimally informative, often unclear, and sometimes downright misleading. Like Few, I have yet to see McCandless create an effective data visualisation. What I find more interesting though is why so many people think such statistical graphics are worthwhile. After all, McCandless’s work seems to do well, and he appears to have a fair amount of admirers (not least the Guardian Newspaper, and others).

So I was fascinated to see some possible answers to this question emerge in comments on Few’s blog. These address the central issue of why some people seem to think an infographic is about something other than informing people about something. It’s a question that I’ve wondered about in the face of poor information designs. The ubiquitous pie charts, the maps, the numbers shown in very big figures. There’s so much drek out there – and if you ask me, McCandeless is the high priest of it. But now the spontaneous discussion on Few’s blog has cleared at last some of the fog for me.

In short, it seems that some people see the purpose of infographics, as produced by people like McCandless, as ways of “engaging” an otherwise disinterested audience. “Look!” they say, “Here is a pretty picture that will make you think about something important!” In order to achieve this “engagement”, the author may (OK almost always has to) sacrifice clarity – or even truth itself – by selecting arresting visuals and bold designs. One might say that while the slogan of Tuftean statistical graphics is “Above all, show the data”, the slogan of McCandless’s followers is “Above all, don’t be boring.” For after all, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the work is, if nobody (or at least the target audience) is going to look at it, then what use is it? Cue pie charts, 3D graphics, Flash animation and gratuitous eye candy.

To an extent, I can understand this. So I shall think twice before dismissing McCandeless’s work out of hand in future. If there’s a possibility that somebody might see it and be moved to find out more about the subject, no matter how crass the execution, then it’s sort of OK.

So maybe that’s my problem, maybe I’m too pompous about this stuff. But I can’t help thinking that ditching insight in the name of superficial gee-whizz engagement is ultimately a waste of time. As I think Few remarked at one point, Black Forest Gateau is great, but I wouldn’t recommend eating it every day. At some point you’ll need to balance your diet.


Thanks for writing this so I don’t have to. (Been planning to for ages.)

I often thought Edward Tufte could do with reading Don Norman’s “Emotional Design”. Tufte’s relentlessly utilitarian ethos, which permits no ink that’s not “data ink”, is in conflict with human psychology. We will tend to ignore what does not first engage us visually.

Nevertheless, I believe there’s a balance (hoary old cliché, I know) between aesthetics and fidelity, which neither as dry as Tufte’s, nor as unhelpful or misleading as most of McCandless’s work.

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