Visualizations of various types are used to support thinking and communication. I focus on their use for analyzing and presenting quantitative information, but they can also be used for other purposes, such as teaching concepts and procedures, and helping people understand processes and complex systems. With the publication of Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century in 1999, Robert Horn made a compelling case that visualization is a language, which is different from but often collaborates with verbal language. It is definitely true that, when trying to communicate certain information, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As technologies such as television, video games, and the Internet fill our lives with increasing amounts of visual content, the potential of visualization is now taken for granted. The question remains, however, “Are we using this visual language effectively?”
I decided to address this topic today while looking at an “infographic” about the costs of the war in Iraq shown below, which was created by Good Magazine, based on the book Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict by Nobel Prize laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes.
In Visual Language, Horn defined “infographics” (short for “information graphic”) as:
Moderately sized, meaningful combinations of words, images, and shapes that together constitute a complete communication unit. Visual and verbal elements are tightly integrated. Is as self-contained as possible on 1 or 2 pages or on a large screen. Usually contains more information than a concept diagram, although an information graphic may use any of the types of concept diagrams as its central visual element. Usually contains several blocks of text.
(Visual Language, Robert E. Horn, MacroVU, Inc,, Bainbridge Island, Washington, 1998, p. 61)
This form and use of visualization has become popular in the last few years. We now see frequent examples of infographics in major news publications. I’ve seen examples that work to communicate effectively, but more that, in my opinion, do not. What accounts for these differences in the effectiveness of infographics?
I believe that the Three Trillion Dollar War visualization, which tells a story that I care about and consider important, fails as an infographic. Aspects of its visual design discourage me from examining it. It’s hard to look at. Even if the aesthetics were more pleasing to the eye, I don’t think the graphics achieve their communication objectives. The story is adequately told by the text-the ten points that are described verbally to the right of the graphics. The graphics add no value or meaning that isn’t contained in the text. The pictures themselves don’t reveal anything we can’t learn more clearly from the text. Graphics should only be used when they communicate more effectively than words or words alone. Visual displays can do a great job of revealing relationships that might be difficult to communicate with words alone, but the relationships between the various costs that appear in this infographic are buried in visual clutter.
Until yesterday, I had never heard of Good Magazine. According to their website:
GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 we’ve been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn. This website is an ongoing exploration of what GOOD is and what it can be.
Based on what I’ve read, I like these guys and support what they’re trying to do. I want their work to succeed , but as an information visualization professional, I’m concerned that in this case at least their good intentions have been undermined by ineffective graphics.
My purpose here is not to critique this particular infographic, and certainly not to criticize the work of Good Magazine. Rather, I’m writing to raise concerns once again about the quality of infographics in general and the fact that it doesn’t seem to be improving. I believe infographics have great potential, but their effectiveness must be honed through empirical study. Infographics practitioners must become more introspective, more critical of their work, if they wish to give something useful to the world. Most of the infographics that I’ve seen are filled with what Tufte calls “chartjunk.”
Why are we still producing chartjunk? Jacques Bertin put us on the road to effective uses of visualization by introducing the basic vocabulary of visual communication. Tufte refined and extended this work, especially in regards to quantitative communication. Robert Horn synthesized much of what’s being done and demonstrated the existence of visual language. But today, rather than continuing in this critical scientific tradition, infographics reminds me of Web design in the early days: free expression with little regard for practices that have been proven to produce the desired outcomes. No one seems to be doing any work to determine what works and what doesn’t, and to understand why. Or, if they are, I’m not aware of it, and am rarely seeing the results.
In Visual Language, Horn wrote:
Basic scientific research is beginning to bear out the thesis of this book-that people find it easier and more effective to communicate by using combinations of words and images. Although visual language has yet to be subjected to a full battery of cognitive science or pragmatic tests, the few available studies support that conclusion…Because visual language is so effective, it is important that standards and criteria develop for its use. These criteria need to be based on principles that come from both cognitive science and design. Criteria for good practice will evolve both from the evidence of careful empirical studies that compare different visual methods of expressing a similar message and from the reflective judgments of practitioners. Out of such aesthetic factors come the models, the criteria, and the aesthetic factors that together make a message effective, efficient, and attractive. We have clearly entered a period of exciting dialogue and development of these ideas. (ibid., pp. 233 and 235)
I share Horn’s vision, but I’m not sure that during the last 10 years since he wrote these words, the hope and enthusiasm that he expressed in the final sentence applies to infographics. Just as statistical graphics have been subjected to empirical study, and continue to be, resulting in guiding principles that can be found in the works of Tufte, Cleveland, and more recently my own, infographics must do the same if we wish to apply them effectively.
I’m interested in your thoughts, especially if you’re an infographics practitioner. Are you aware of work that’s being done to put infographics on the track to effectiveness that it needs to mature and definitely deserves?