“We have a diagram of this.”

by on September 29, 2007

I’ve been thinking about “info graphics” again, and what a tricky area this is. It’s doubly so because a large part of what I do for a living is information design.

There is essentially an “emperor’s new clothes” problem prevalent in the production of information graphics. To me, the vast majority of subjects that I see addressed by such graphics (in particular, complex ones) would be better expressed in words – either spoken or written.

I recently found a quote by William S. Cleveland, a scholar in the field of graphical representation of data. He sums up the background to the problem I’m wrestling with:

“When a graph is made, quantitative and categorical information is encoded by a display method. Then the information is visually decoded. This visual perception is a vital link. No matter how clever the choice of the information, and no matter how technologically impressive the encoding, a visualization fails if the decoding fails. Some display methods lead to efficient, accurate decoding, and others lead to inefficient, inaccurate decoding.”

William S. Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data, Hobart Press, 1994, p. 1

Firstly, let me say that there is a tiny minority of information graphics that are truly worthy of the name. That is, graphics that communicate things that you would not be able to understand in any other way without a great deal of effort. But they are very rare. In my experience, the balance is usually way off in favour of display methods that lead to inefficient, inaccurate decoding.

I’ve blogged about this issue before, but I’m thinking about it again in the light of some work I’m doing on displays of statistical data. As part of this work, I’ve been surfing around looking at various examples of things, and found this company. Their stock in trade is information graphics, and it’s fascinating. Have a look through some of the examples they give. The first point to note is that in most of the graphics here, they have to rely on words to capture the complicated parts. They then knit these balls of complexity together with arrows in various rather attractive ways. Colours, shading, textures… all are use to make things feel nice. At least I assume they are for feeling nice, since they seem to eschew things like colour coding, for example.

This example particularly caught my eye. (“Business Model/Mission Statement of a Non-Profit Organization” – An illustration that summarizes strategic planning work). Let’s use this to show what my problem is with most info graphics. Firstly, the subject is the illustration of a business model. As we all know, business models are about money somewhere, and about money coming in, so in this case we have some background knowledge of the field.

The diagram shows with a big green arrow (money) flying out from the “self” at the centre via the “community” and thence through “socio-political-economic” in the form of “actions.” This money then comes into the organisation’s researchers and consultants via an “emotion” route (unless that’s not relevant) through… “fractals.” At which point I admit defeat.

What is this diagram supposed to be saying? What insight is it revealing? Why was it made? I have no idea. I would guess from its title that it’s trying to show how a charity might inspire individuals to raise money for research by appealing to their emotional as well as rational selves. This then causes those people to interact with their community to generate more money for the organisation, and inspire others to do so too. In short, just like every other non-profit organisation. Look Ma -no Illustrator!

The wonderful thing is that this is just one of many such examples they have. Is this art? Science? Something else? Who benefits from all this?

Finally, consider that the makers of this graphic all but say it is self-explanatory. If the diagrams were not, then their central thesis would collapse. But the fact that I am baffled proves them wrong.

As an aside, you might also consider how rare it is for anyone to criticise most information graphics. It seem that to do so is pompous, geeky, or just rude. I usually refrain from it in public for fear of being labelled in some negative way. It is in fact very hard to criticise such graphics because they are non-verbal. You are bound by a sort of conceptual straight jacket – unable to articulate the problems: “The big arrow going in there, why isn’t it not sort of going over and, er, up? And why is it split up at the end?” You sound like you are trying to lay down rules for something that “everyone knows” has no rules. I suspect such graphics could in fact look like anything at all – the point being that their existence is what matters: “We have a diagram of this.” Phew.


you could probably extend what you say to icons in general.

despite having taken an exam in the highway code at one stage in my life i’m pretty fuzzy on most road signs. i suspect i’m not alone.

i like the information architecture behind different colours and shapes of sign etc, but i think it goes over most people’s heads in a way that words wouldn’t. there’s a business requirement for signs to be international which i suppose is always read to mean – exclude words.

similarly – have a look at the toolbar in the horrible adobe reader. today i discovered an option to turn on “tool button labels”. try it and discover what all those features are, while feeling the pain of the designer briefed to make the “read an ebook” icon.

Goes back to something I have been saying for years (after researching “visual” programming languages). Any language has to be learnt – icons, graphs, road signs only make sense once you have learnt the language.

We have a handy visual language which the majority of people have already been taught to understand it. I’m using it now.

Take icons, for instance. Icons were always sold as “intuitive”, and yet the majority of them aren’t. Perhaps the old Apple “trash can” is, but most icons represent abstract concepts that can’t be illustrated in any direct or obvious way.

As an example, you may be using a CMS (content management system). You’ll be needing a button to submit content for approval. Is there an obvious, simple, icon to represent “submit for approval”? I don’t know of any.

Visual/iconic languages only work in situations where they are constrained by convention and common use. Road signs mostly work because they have a specific language which we are taught. No smoking, fire exit and so on again are learnt.

To an outsider a modern fire exit sign would be baffling. Look at this one, for instance:


Does it “naturally” make sense, or does it only make sense because we know the convention? Most fire exit signs are supplemented by a handy explanation (“fire exit”).

Even then, convention can be very localised. Take arrows on road signs. In England a “straight ahead” sign is likely to have an arrow pointing up. In France, the sign may well be by the side of the road and appear (to a Brit) to point to the right.

I ramble.

a word for good infographics:

(the artist’s response to sitting thru the same show 7 nights running)

(money men like good infographics)

edward tufte in general

lots of things by the guardian (and even the independent)

there’s just more bad infographics than good ones.

The NYT one is interesting – like an interactive version of the Forrester scorecard.

One thing that Point by Point say is that they present data in “an appealing yet informative way.” Most of the problems encountered by info graphics is that they try too hard to be “appealing.” If the reader is interested in understanding the data, that understanding will be appealing enough in itself without having to apply useless colours, shading or other “chart junk” – yet the amount of junk out there is incredible. I wonder how much of it is simply down to graphic designers feeling that they have to justify their fee?

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