I’ve written previously about my concern that infographics—the mixture of text and images to tell stories, explain concepts, describe processes, or provide instructions—have no real research to back up their claims of effectiveness. Visual communication is all the rage today, and rightfully so because it has great potential when used effectively, but much of what’s being sold by expensive consultants simply doesn’t work. This is a travesty; infographics could be used for good if we could only figure out when to use them and how to properly design them. Research is needed, but in the meantime organizations are spending bundles of money on silly posters that are rarely more effective than a simple written document.
Take the following example that XPLANE is currently exhibiting with pride. For a mere $24,000 paid for its design, plus the cost of printing and shipping, a company named Weatherford has placed a copy of this poster in the workspace of every one of its HR representatives worldwide.
According to the HR Manager at Weatherford who commissioned the work, this poster depicts the “Work Life Cycle of an employee in an organization and the role played by PeopleSoft HRMS system in managing talent and partnering with HR as an enabler.” Why do they need a poster? “We lacked a consolidated, high impact message that could capture and communicate with our people. We needed a clear, concise way to deliver our message to all levels, languages and cultures while remaining cost effective.” How does this poster communicate to all languages? They produced 12 different versions of it; one for each language group. In other words, the pictures didn’t solve the language problem. In fact, the pictures add no meaning to the poster whatsoever. The human figures walking, sitting, and standing in various settings, which resemble graphics common in old video games, are at best evocative of meanings that we already know from the text. The pictures are mere eye candy—empty calories.
Is this the best that infographics has to offer? Are infographics about decorating concepts and instructions with silly pictures to entertain people, thinking that only then will they actually read the words? If so, rather than paying $24,000 to have a graphic artist arrange images from his clipart library on a piece of paper to make a set of instructions look like a children’s game, why not just type up a list of instructions and put a picture of a kitten at the top of the page, or better yet, different kittens in various cute poses next to each section of text?
Infographics can be done well. Images can be used in ways that complement the text by elaborating, explaining, or clarifying it when words alone don’t do the trick. I’ve seen many examples in news publications such as the New York Times and Newsweek, which combine text, quantitative graphs, and sometimes diagrams and photos, to tell the story of a current event. These are quite different from the visual wasteland that’s pictured above. When they’re effective, what makes them so? This is what we people who produce infographics need to figure out, based on solid research.
Once again I’d like to ask you who are infographic experts to prove the worth of your methods. The fact that organizations are willing to pay for your services proves nothing. These are probably the same organizations that are spending big bucks on so-called data visualization software that allows them to put lighting effects on pie charts and then make them spin. After spending $24,000 of his company’s money on a poster, what Human Resources Manager is not going to argue its worth in an effort to combat cognitive dissonance? I’m issuing this challenge because I know there’s something worthwhile here, but it’s jumbled in with the crap. Start thinking critically about this stuff; question your methods, put them to the test, and eventually you’ll establish guidelines for separating the wheat from the chaff.
Until then, we’ll be papering our walls and cluttering our brains with the likes of the recent infographic below from GOOD magazine, which exhibits so many problems it’s hard to imagine where to begin critiquing it, so I’ll leave that to you. I’m going to go lie down now and cover my eyes with a warm compress.