Infographics were once a means of presenting a data-driven story in a meaningful, visual way, but lately their purpose has betrayed this initial ideal.
“Infographics to me are those long, pictogram type images with a few numbers slapped on,” writes Alison McCann, a visual journalist and data reporter at FiveThirtyEight. “That’s not journalism to me. Visual journalism” — using maps, charts, graphs, and interactive features — “aims to communicate an idea or aid in the communication of a written story.” Entire websites have sprung up over the past six years devoted to crunching data for popular consumption, such as the Nate Silver-founded FiveThirtyEight, Mic (formerly PolicyMic), and the Ezra Klein-edited Vox.
Meanwhile, the public perception of infographics has foundered: the pieces are seen as graphic but not informational. As Megan McArdle discussed in the Atlantic in 2011, the data boom has led to oversimplifying, sometimes erroneous, and occasionally downright manipulative infographics. “The infographics are being used to get unwitting bloggers to drive up their Google search rankings,” McArdle noted, with individuals and companies now using infographics as a means of search engine optimization (SEO).
Crunching, displaying, and discussing data in a way that connects with the public without betraying the information’s true meaning is critical, particularly in this era of the climate crisis. This, in turn, requires cooperation from the data producer and the data consumer.
For example, this infographic from the Department of Energy (on their Better Buildings Challenge) has an uncluttered layout, a simple color palette, and summarizes the data using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Most importantly, the reader knows where this information is coming from and can even read further on the DOE’s page. Score: 5/5; the graphic effectively shows trustworthy information about how the Better Buildings Challenge has lowered buildings’ energy use and shrunk their carbon footprint.
Meanwhile, this infographic by Column Five Media and GOOD both shares and diverges from the ideal qualities for such a graphic. On the one hand, the information is clearly presented and sourced, and uses only five colors: red, blue, yellow, orange, and black. But on the other hand, there is a slight information overload in this graphic. The infographic presents seven poll questions, presented in either multiple parts or showing change over time, using seven different types of graphs — from bar graphs to pie charts to a custom graph using gear shapes. Score: 3/5; the polls seem trustworthy and tell a story, but it might have been more accessible if it were broken up into smaller pieces.
Finally, there are those graphics that are so lacking that the information consumer senses it immediately, the scourge McArdle’s Atlantic article wishes to eradicate. Take this infographic from the site ShrinkThatFootprint.com and reposted onto Inhabitat, for example. While the main point of the article is relatively clear (most of the U.S. carbon comes from American fuel), the source is not only misspelled, but (presumably intentionally) vague, and the American flag-esque layout in no way further conveys the information. Score: 0/5; everything is wrong with this, from the source to the producer to the aesthetics.
Ultimately, it is still possible for experts, journalists, and the public alike to learn something from visual representations of data — in fields as disparate as sports, economics, and policy. Even the infographic can be raised from its current state to prove useful as a means of presenting and discussing statistics. But it must be done carefully and rigorously — not to dumb down information or, worse, manipulate it for personal or corporate gain, but to tell a story using data in an honest, analytical, argumentative way.