At Last, a Scientific Approach to Infographics

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly for awhile, you know that I occasionally bemoan the sad state of most information graphics (infographics). Most of the folks who produce infographics lack guidelines based on solid research. In their attempt to inform, describe, or instruct, most of the infographics that I’ve seen fail-many miserably. I’m thrilled to announce, however, that a new book is now available that takes a great step toward providing the guidelines that are needed for the production of effective infographics.

If you were to browse the books in my library, you would soon discover that it’s easy to tell which I like the most: they’re the ones that have a large number of pen marks in them-mostly lines to delineate passages as important, with occasional checks and asterisks, along with annotations. If you flipped through my new copy of Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand by Connie Malamed, you would see lines and notes on almost every page. Its contents are important, interesting, spot on, and beautifully expressed.

Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand,
Connie Malamed, Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2009

Malamed is a cognitive scientist, artist, and educator. As such, she recognizes the need for infographics to be designed with an understanding of what actually works, based on empirical research. She proposes design principles that have emerged from an understanding of how the eyes and mind function, drawn from research in the fields of visual communication and graphic design, learning theory and instructional design, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and information visualization. If the folks who produce infographics read this book and follow the scientifically-based principles that it teaches, they will move the field of infographics to a new level of usefulness.

This book is a great foundation on which to build more specialized principles for the design of effective infographics. To extend and deepen these guidelines beyond the general principles that Malamed has synthesized from related fields, the field now needs research that focuses on infographics in particular. Organizations that claim expertise in infographics and “visual thinking” should encourage this research, in part by reaching out to universities and other research organizations.

Visual Language for Designers is affordably priced: only $40 for a large hardbound book, printed in color. For this we can thank Rockport, the publisher of a growing body of work on graphics. Unfortunately, the paper that Rockport chose is a bit too glossy, which causes light to reflect off the pages into the reader’s eyes, making clear viewing of images a bit difficult at times. Using paper with a matte finish works better, which is a practice that Rockport should consider.

The only downside of the book’s contents is that some of the examples of infographics fail to effectively illustrate Malamed’s informative text. Malamed chose to illustrate each concept and principle using existing information graphics that were produced by others. Although this works most of the time, this approach fails at times to illustrate her points as clearly and specifically as possible. In some cases this might be because good examples don’t exist. In others, the examples fail because they include too much visual complexity to clearly feature the point that Malamed is trying to illustrate. In several cases Malamed could have illustrated her points more effectively by creating her own illustrations, specifically designed for the task. Several examples in the book fail in minor ways, but a few fail altogether. Despite the examples that fall short, many are wonderful examples of well-designed infographics. For instance, the well-crafted work of Nigel Holmes is prominently featured through the use of several examples.

It’s interesting that Malamed used examples only to illustrate the right way to design infographics. I believe the book’s ability to instruct would have benefited from the use of poor examples as well-examples of the common mistakes that are often made, which undermine effectiveness. Knowing the mistakes to avoid, understanding why they don’t work, and learning to recognize them in actual practice is a big part of learning effective design. In several of the examples that are included, mistakes can be found, but Malamed misses the opportunity to point them out.

If you design infographics, by all means buy this book, read it, put its principles into practice, and keep it handy for occasional review. Malamed has provided a wonderful resource for infographic design that is sorely needed. I suspect that Visual Language for Designers will become a classic. If it doesn’t, the field of infographics may continue to produce a great many ineffective displays.

Take care,

3 Comments on “At Last, a Scientific Approach to Infographics”

By Eric Williams. June 24th, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I picked this up on the weekend and actually brought into work to show some of the visuals to my peers. For those of us in corporate IT, Pg 32 has a cool, crisp alternative to the typical swimlane process flow chart by information designer Gordon Cieplak. It’s also great to see the work of photographer Chris Jordan brought into the mix. There are some overly decorative infographics in here that would make Edward Tufte sigh in disapproval, but I don’t think Malemed is pushing for strict functionalism. This is an innovative crossover book that would be at home on the shelf of a BI project manager or the coffee table of a pure graphic designer.

By James Macanufo. July 23rd, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Agreed that now is the time to scientifically & empirically understand how the visual+human interface works (and in many unfortunate cases, when it doesn’t.) In the case of infographics, I think this conversation is emerging as the field matures; it has been a domain of experts and artists, but I think we’re recognizing that its potential demands the attention of more minds and hands.

The conversation can benefit, I think, from some of the great research that’s been done already. In the case of infographics, some of the answers are out there, but aren’t well assembled, IMHO. And although the answers are REALLY what we want, the first step is developing the right questions. What are we trying to figure out here? And why?

Great post, and a great book on a great subject. Let’s develop some great questions.

By James Lytle. July 28th, 2009 at 11:35 am

Well you’ve got my expectations pretty high Stephen. Just ordered it. Particularly been interested in seeing how cognitive science relates to understanding and motivation to act; on transparent terms of course. Moving with the the shift towards usefulness

James L.