Infographic Smoke and Mirrors

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.

Take care,

11 Comments on “Infographic Smoke and Mirrors”


By John S.. June 12th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

The HR Infographic looks surprisingly like many of the printed instructions with mangled english translations that accompany things I buy that require assembly - and we know how well those projects usually turn out.

I think the kittens look more distressed than cute.

Great piece. Very relevant to me as I am in involved in a public sector dashboard project at the moment, where the emphasis is on the pictures rather than the informational content

By Jon Peltier. June 12th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Very nice analysis, which covers one of my pet peeves better than I could have done.

For my money, GOOD magazine is one of the worst at generating bad Sim City infodiz (information disasters).

By Toni S.. June 12th, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Xplane has gained a lot of popularity and is able to charge more than its competition for graphics that are often incomplete. The problem is that they sell this service to the marketing departments of software companies, people who do not even use the product - and the people who actually built the product and wrote those documents were not even properly consulted.

You mentioned that infographics have been used successfully in the media. Can you post some examples of such work?

By JamesK. June 12th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Here is a more confusing graph from xplane:
http://www.keynote.com/company/about/Keynote_OBMC_.pdf

By Matt D.. June 17th, 2009 at 10:07 am

Steve,

I think the more effective versions of “inforgraphics” that you are looking for would be what Lean practitioners call “Standard Work” procedures. This concept is taking a standard written procedure, and including photos, screenshots, or diagrams of the actual work being performed (whether physical work with a machine, or on a computer). Rather than vague graphics or flowcharts, you show pictures of how the machine or software is supposed to look when you are following the procedure correctly and efficiently, and even include pictures of common mistakes (clearly labeled.) These kinds of documents are not as “sexy” as computer-designed cartoons, but they actually help people get through a confusing task more efficiently and without errors.

I suspect that posters of the Xplane kind are more about marketing the program to upper management than about actually helping employees accomplish anything. My impression is that there is not much information available on how to use graphics more effectively in procedures.

By James Lytle. July 28th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

The reality is often this infotising fluff is the result of designers with no concept of creating something useful for the user. The major disconnect between graphicall output and consumer observation is potential. Graphic / Information designers could learn and implement best practices. The general target consumer could appreciate (and even eventually demand) the benefits from good infographics, but mutual expectations are so low and marginalized in the name of entertainment and quick money. The potential for good design is huge; the believers are few. Perhaps more effort should be focused on spreading the faith.

By South Metro News Roundup: August 21st, 2009 | Bill Roehl. August 21st, 2009 at 8:03 am

[...] It’s my opinion that journalists, especially if they are using visual representations to help sell their stories, need to take the time to properly represent the data on a chart. If they are unable to do so, they should put it in a table and let people determine themselves the true meaning w/o nearly as much room for skew. This is not to single out the Thisweek intern as it’s a problem with many journalists using data represented by visuals in their articles. [...]

By Francesco. September 3rd, 2009 at 11:08 am

I agree with you about a lot of things and surely those exemples are not representative of the best infographics we can hope for.
I would nonetheless say that “eyecandy” is not necessarily a bad thing, if used properly. Which is something that you may also agree with but, if that’s the case, it doesn’t really come out from this post, especially for the example you made of the cute kittens picture.
We first of all agree on the fact that infographics serve the purpose of displaying information (be it data or processes) in the most effective and reasonable way. If done properly, they can also instantly show you connections about differents sets of data that wouldn’t be so clear in a wrtitten text.
But are these the only purposes? I think it depends widely on the “audience”.
When the people you are “speaking” to are professionals in a specific field, they not only are interested in knowing the data, they do need the data.
So in this case the purpose of infographics is all about effectiveness. We do not need eyecandy. Worst: it can be annoying for those who are seeking for some relevant information. Even worst maybe: it can distract the designer from the real purpose of what he’s doing. thus bringing him to bad results (sometimes people even omit some data because it doesn’t fit in the “cool” design they’re making).
But when we are talking about magazines like Good, or Wired, or maybe The Guardian, the situation is really different. Try to make all the infographics like those you could find in a financial paper. They may be effective, but the result would be a saddening bore that I really doubt anyone would look at. We can speculate a lot about how it would be a better world if people would be just interested in some arguments and keep them informed no matter what. But the truth is that they don’t and probably never will.
So can good looking infographics make people reading them more willingly? It appears so…at least listening to friends and parents who discuss about what they’ve recently read on some cool infographic. Of course this is not a scientific method of proving anything, but a more compelling proof comes from the spreading of some “cool” infographics in the internet. Sometime people just post them because they are “cool”. Sometimes people start to discuss about the content of it.
Now of course we come back to the other purpose: in fact, if we want to raise some sort of interest or discussion about something, we should also provide data in an effective and honest way.
So in the end, like a lot of times, the best solution is in the middle of the two extremes. We should find the best compromise and to do that, we should of course have the best notions about how to make an affective infographic…but also have the capability of finding a right visual metaphore for it, that could stimulate some viewer, and maybe add some “juice”, depending on the case.
And that’s also why, the example of the kittens is wrong: it would be just a photo preceding some maybe boring text and not connected to its conent. It would bring just frustration to the reader.
But of course that was just a joke…

Ok so, sorry if my english is not perfect, I tried my best to make myself clear, but I could have made some mistake (corrections would be much appreciated).

Bye!

By Stephen Few. September 5th, 2009 at 10:42 am

Francesco,

In all cases, regardless of the intended audience or specific purpose, an infographic should communicate information. Graphics may be used for many purposes, but infographics, by definition, are used to impart information. We should always evaluate an infographic’s effectiveness by the degree to which it communicates its intended message. An infographic can be beautiful, engaging, and fully informative. No conflict exists between these qualities. “Eye candy,” as I use the term, refers to gratuitous visual effects that undermine the quality of communication. There is never a place for eye candy in an infographic. Eye candy is the product of lazy, unskilled design. Like actual candy, it provides the superficial appeal of calories and fat without nutritional value, and as such, just like cheap candy it is harmful. Skilled designers never include anything in an infographic that doesn’t serve a useful purpose, and serve it well.

Unfortunately, the world we live in assaults our senses and insults our minds with poor design and empty experience. As a result, it is easy for people to become like the rats in stimulus/response experiments whose pleasure centers are stimulated each time they push a lever, which leads them to push the lever and ignore all else until they eventually die of starvation. Infographics must do more than grab the readers attention; they should grab it in a way that draws people meaningfully into the information. Those of us who are responsible for imparting information through infographics should learn to provide real value by delivering information clearly, accurately, simply, and yes, in a manner that engages our audience and invites them to learn. Otherwise we will give the world nothing but a lever to push for empty thrills that starve the soul.

By Dave. May 27th, 2010 at 9:49 am

After reading the initial critique of the poster above, I thought it might be interesting (and probably amusing) to write a “play-by-play” script of the figures. When I attempted this initially, I was looking at the image as posted within the article (a bit small and grainy) so when I opened up the larger .jpg it was somewhat funny how I had interpreted the various ‘prop’ objects in each ’scene’… Here’s what I saw… anyone else care to try?

The call comes in and the repair man leaves to fix the problem… On the way he meets a bunch of friends and has lunch in a a room with no chairs… after lunch he gets a call on his cell phone… then signs for a package from UPS… at some point he takes the Red escalator where (on the way) he stops to read directions to a friend who was working on repairing a robot… then plays “patty-cake” with another friend… The UPS guy (in the meantime) gets on the green escalator, and has to dismantle an atom bomb - after which he asks for directions to his next stop from a guy who has no idea where he wants to go… eventually, he meets his old friend from the 2nd floor in the ground floor copy room who tells him where to go… he then leaves with his friend’s lunchbox and gos to the internet cafe where he is chats online to a friend that is in a different internet cafe… they set a time and location to meet… and when they do, he scores (a touch-down).

I don’t have a clue what this has to do with HR, but it was fun watching our hero run around (certainly more entertaining than kittens)… and I guess that’s what the government guys in the operations room (left-center)were doing the whole time as well… LOL

By Stephen Few. May 27th, 2010 at 10:03 am

Dave,

I think you’re not giving the kittens their due. Their story might not be as entertaining, but it probably makes more sense.

Thanks for highlighting the absurdity of this infographic by actually trying to make sense of it–something that is rarely done.

Steve