“We have a diagram of this.”

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.