Wednesday, June 22, 2011

what's with all these infographics?

Infographics are popping up like mushrooms. They attempt to illuminate everything from how many people are really using social media to the Bruins' bar tab at Foxwoods.  Why so many infographics lately? Are we really learning anything from them?

I used postpost to find all the links to infographics in my Twitter stream. I should probably do an infographic of infographic tweets according to who tweeted them or what they were about. Yeah, an infographic about infographics ... OK, just spent about half an hour going over the links that postpost uncovered and the only topics that had more than one infographic about them besides infographics themselves were social media, the Bruins bar tab, and Foursquare. I can't even begin to conceive of how to represent that in an infographic.

For the most part, they don't really communicate very much to me.  I'm a fairly visual person. I love to take photographs. I often think in pictures. I can often figure out how something mechanical works by looking at it. Why am I having trouble understanding these infographics? Let me count the ways.

Appearance

Some of them look like ransom notes with so many different fonts that I can't focus on the content through the jumble. Some of them have bizarre low contrast color schemes-- paler blue on pale blue is really hard to read on my laptop screen.  All of them are hard to read on my mobile device.

Reliance on Text

If they're supposed to be visual representations of quantitative information, why are so many of them crammed with text? I don't think that's what Edward Tufte had in mind in any of his works on graphics in technical communication.  By the way, none of the ones I looked at had any "alt=" text for anything except the title. My visually impaired partner would have a heck of a time using a screen reader on them. I mean if you're going to make stuff inaccessible to the visually impaired, why bother including text in the first place?

Get to the Point

Most of them had so much stuff crammed into them that I couldn't figure out what the main point of the graphic was. What exactly is my takeaway supposed to be? A picture can be worth 10,000 words if you have the right picture, but if the viewer is left scratching her head about what the picture is supposed to be, it doesn't communicate much. 

Context, Lack Of

Where does the data come from? Why are you comparing apples and peaches when the question was about strawberries? Or was it about strawberries? More context on what questions the graphic is trying to answer, data acquisition methodology, data analysis methodology, and who the intended audience is would certainly help.

Darn. I've barely skimmed the surface and this post has gotten too long already. I feel other posts on the subject building  up.

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