Worst Infographic Yet: Colours in Cultures

by on June 24, 2010

David McCandless is an interesting person doing interesting things. Interesting to me, that is, because his work exemplifies something I find deeply mysterious in the way people regard information visualisation. His pursuit of “beauty” seems to be a licence to override clarity, truth, and even common sense. Yet he is widely lauded (here he is writing on the Guardian’s Data Blog). In this, he is surely the anti-Tufte.

McCandless’s current pièce de résistance, “Colours in Cultures” – depicted on the cover of his book Information is Beautiful, typifies all that baffles me about him and the people that praise his work. It’s the Philippe Starck juicer of information graphics: it looks great, but if you actually want to know what the colour purple represents in different “cultures”, it’s damn hard work compared to the obvious alternative of a simple table. But then, that would be boring, I suppose. So is it art or science? Am I asking the wrong questions about it entirely? Perhaps I should buy his book and hit myself over the head with it until I understand.


Je pense que c’est les nouveaux vêtements de l’empereur – just started French classes.

Je pense que c’est les nouveaux vêtements de l’empereur – just started French classes!

In short – David McCandless is an incredibly successful self-publicist. He’s a pretty good artist doing fairly artistic things with a novel pallette (data rather than oil) – but that’s not why he’s a success. He’s a success because he managed to turn himself into his very own internet meme, full of self-obsessed ramblings about what he does. People don’t like what he does so much about what he says about doing what he does.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that at some point they reach a point where there’s nothing left to say except how successful they have been about making a success of talking about themselves trying to succeed, and suddenly it all seems deeply disingenuous. cf Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

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