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Infographics for Grown-Ups

This month’s blog is about infographics, effective presentation of data and resolving the tension between these. Some of this material has appeared in previous of my blogs. As I have written previously, there is clearly a tension in data visualization between:

  • clarity and aesthetics
  • informing and attention-getting
  • and therefore, unfortunately, effective graphical presentation of data and infographics

I think this tension can be a source of better understanding of what we, as data communicators, are doing and should/can do in a given circumstance.

Let’s look, using data graphics and infographics as examples, at how to choose the mix of clarity and “attention grabbing power” that you need. In doing so, I use examples of data graphics as should be used in a report, briefing or presentation, and infographics, which I’ll define as standalone, single-view presentations of quantitative and qualitative facts, generally designed for a popular audience.

As the original writers in the field, including Edward Tufte, Colin Ware and Stephen Few have pointed out, we have different “kinds” of memory. Our iconic memory lets us perceive certain basic shapes and colour instantly. Our working memory involves discrete and limited amounts of information which we use in the task at hand. These basic facts have immediate implications for the effective presentation of quantitative information. With this knowledge, we can harness fundamentals like:

  • the pre-attentive attributes of visual perception and
  • the data-ink ratio

Knowing these and other key concepts and principles allows you to create data graphics that are very quickly and fully understood, with as little effort as possible on the part of your audience.

Choices, audiences and quality

Sometimes it’s critical to convey information as clearly and accurately as possible, and sometimes that is less important than drawing people in to take a closer look.

That is going to depend on the circumstance. You want clarity and ease of comprehension in the boardroom. But you might want a certain “curb appeal” if you are communicating basic facts and ideas to a wide and general kind of audience that might otherwise ignore you in the daily competition for attention.

One way to harness this might be to look at choices as part of a set of continua, such as these:

 

I also think that this is a matter of quality, as well as a matter of choice of form and formality. There is no need for, or advantage in, ineffective graphics ignoring the principles of effective data presentation, like 3-d pie charts, rows of little people, large-font numerals in bright, meaningless colours, and so on.

Let’s assume we all agree to use some principles and insist on high quality. Let’s also go back to our choices. We could think of our choices in this two-dimensional space.

This gives us target areas of information/attention and clarity/vagueness that might be appropriate for differing audiences and purposes. I think that various mixes of clarity and intended purpose, positioned between the attention-getting and the clearly informing, suit different purposes, and it’s worth being purposeful in this choice.

This is where effective data visualization practices like minimizing the data-ink ratio and using the attributes of pre-attentive processing, always supporting high quality, can also be your guide to how much emphasis you want to put on precision or a more popular feel. Keep in mind that what is “precise” or “attractive” depends on your audience’s experiences, expertise and preferences.

If you have effective practices in your toolbox, you can then decide purposefully whether or not to let clarity slide a bit in the interest of grabbing the attention of the casual reader, and by how much, in order to achieve your communications goals.

I am a little ambivalent about the x-axis of this diagram, because I think that a well-designed piece of work can both grab and inform you. Nevertheless, I think there is more often a choice to be made.

There are at this point millions of examples of poorly-designed infographics, from a data-clarity point of view.

Some use poor graphics, a great deal of non-data ink and often have no or little coherent story. By “story”, I mean a set of points arranged in an order where one follows the other and contribute together to illustrating a point, or at least a set of things that are clearly interrelated.

 

 

Let’s look at some examples.

The first example violates any and all principles you care mention – but in terms of our main principles it fails at:

  • chart choice/design
  • data ink
  • story (more about this shortly)

…this is a disaster.

 

 

 

 

……and so is this, for the same reasons:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
This is of a type of infographic that we see often:

 

  • it is just a bunch of facts with associated numbers
  • the numbers are presented in bold, bright formats, as if that is going to help us understand or remember them
  • there is no story
  • but at least there is some interpretive text

 

 

We see a lot of infographics like this example:

No story – this is just lazy. Surely there is a way to relate these points into a more cohesive whole. As it is, it’s just a collection of ideas. You don’t put together a clear picture in your mind and you will not remember this.

 

 

Here is something pretty close to what I’ve seen people doing in a policy/evaluation context:

Again, lazy – it could at least be arranged into a few categories to help contextualize, since there are points at the international level, national (parliamentary) and individual citizen level. There is no effort to relate a story or convey a coherent arrangement of facts with a unifying message or conclusion.

Moreover, after reading all of the most respected references on information graphic design, I see very little support for using lines of human-shaped icons to convey quantitative meaning. Maybe we should just skip this cliché.

Really good infographics combine effective graphics with context and storyline, like this example from Alberto Cairo’s book “The Functional Art”. This is the best source I know of on the intelligent and effective design of infographics. This kind of infographic presentation would be suitable for any audience with a basic ability to understand data graphs.

 

A more “austere” approach, more suitable for briefings and reporting, might look like this:

Here we are again assuming basic “chart literacy” on the part of the reader and a need to very clearly and quickly understand what is being displayed and why it matters. I did this dashboard, or visual display, as an example of how to report on the social value of an employment development initiative with which I was involved.

Finally, for public consumption, you may wish to use more “artistic” approaches and resources.


I found this excellent example on how highway traffic congestion starts, to my amazement, in a collection of images on the net. Usually what you find is, sadly, pretty bad.

 

 

 

 

There are lots of sources on and examples of really effective infographics out there, pitched for various degrees of precision to public-user “friendliness”. In fact, infographics are really just one end of the continuum from very precise analytical displays to very popularized presentations. But they have in common, if they are any good, that they relate a story and make use of visual devices that are meaningful and aid in comprehension of the data and the subject.

 

Whatever our choices, we don’t have to make bad choices. We have the tools to make purposeful decisions as to how we will present our data. Moving to the middle in terms of being attention-getting or informative is often the best strategy, especially for infographics, as you can exploit an interesting story and visuals in a way that pure graphics may not by themselves. But even when pure data graphics are the appropriate choice, such as for briefing and serious reporting, narration and a coherent story or set of points are still critical.

So it’s all about knowing the fundamentals and making good choices (just like everything else in life).