Daily ‘rant’: on infographics

First of all, don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of infographics and data visualizations, but so far the ‘industry’ has seemed to have forgotten two crucial points:

  1. What are the origins of the infographic? i.e. what is information?
  2. What kind of actions are their viewers supposed to take afterwards?

I will attempt to shed light on why these two points are crucial, but first, let me give you my brief take on why infographics became so popular.

It seems that one of the main reasons infographics became so popular is that they were supposed to make sense of all the data available both offline and online. Or in other words, to make the world more easy to grasp. From a managerial perspective, for example, this seems like a good cause: turning excel data into a format that is easily consumed. And from a consumer’s perspective, seeing the ‘big picture’ seemed like a good idea to raise awareness of educate people, for example. Both of these purposes are brilliant and, to some extent, idealistic. But, as I will now illustrate, the lack of points 1 and 2 I presented above have made things a tad more complicated.

First, designers of infographics focus on the aesthetic values and simplicity in designing infographics, but where’s the data? Consider the following example by a user experience agency called Zabisco:

Infographics on infographics

Zabisco, and I bet many other companies, use words and slogans such as “stimulating and exciting”, and “to hold the attention of your audience” to argue for infographics. But where does the data come from? Isn’t the data supposed to be the main issue here? From a researcher’s perspective, displaying information without any references to original sources seems like a bad idea…moreover, as information is a contested definition, shouldn’t we contextualize it to give some flesh around the bones? Calling an excel sheet information is ok, but showing where it comes from and how was it collected and so forth would be make it so much more interesting and relevant.

The second point, action perspective, is equally of interest and importance. What are we supposed to do based on the information that is neatly packaged? Or, and this is frightening, are we supposed to do anything else than just to consume it? Because if the latter is the case, then we’re in great troubles. Of course sometimes it is great just to look at beautiful infographics (such as these by Francesco Franchi), but as our societies are being plagued by global and local challenges, it seems a bit decadent just to stick with looking at things while we could be doing things.

So, where does this all take us in terms of infographics? As a researcher of knowledge and information visualization, I’m perplexed by our blindness to actually develop infographics so that they would inspire people to take action. Perhaps storytelling would be a solution here? Either way, what we need is a proper take on the origins of infographics and a more philosophy driven approach to infographics. The infographics people have made so far are both great and bad, but we could do so much more. Consider elections, for example: instead of relying on a designer to produce the infographics on an election, why don’t we ask scholars from political science and knowledge management to tag along and contextualize the infographics to make more sense out of the data (this could potentially result in having T-shaped people that my colleagues at IDBM have been speaking about for many years)?

Perhaps what we are currently seeing is infographics 1.0 and by contextualizing information we could be moving towards infographics 2.0 – or from information to wisdom.

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