This morning, I was stunned to read an article by Erin Everhart of 352 Media Group alleging infographics 1) display data that sucks; 2) dumb us down more than reality television; 3) are abysmally designed; and 4) have a tarnished reputation because of those that are unsuccessful (Source).
Let’s first examine this argument: “Infographics display data that sucks – even in picture form [...] They expect that people won’t understand even the simplest data and put it in picture form that just complicates it even further” (Source). According to statisticians, putting data in “picture form” actually helps people understand the data more clearly because people can read the story in the data. David McCandless argues that visualizing data helps us “see the patterns and connections that matter” (Source).
Most data isn’t simple. When we hear that Americans donate over $300 billion a year to charity, our minds cannot grasp how much money that is unless we can visualize it. David McCandless lets us see how much money $300 billion is… by making it an infographic and comparing that amount to other amounts:
When we can visualize $300 billion, we can understand the data. Without the visualization, $300 billion is just a number – a really, really big number. The data doesn’t suck; it’s actually extremely important – as it most data. But we don’t understand the data until we see the visualization.
Everhart says, “I blame infographics for dumbing us down even more than reality television” (Source). Reality television is 100% consumption. We sit on our couches, shut off our brains, and decay. Infographics, on the other hand, require actual mental activity. Infographics help us process information, so when we view one, we learn and grow; our minds are working. According to Edward R. Tufte, author of Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, “Often the most effective way to describe, explore, and summarize a set of numbers – even a very large set – is to look at pictures of those numbers” (Source).
So let’s do some TV watching to test Everhart’s theory, shall we? If infographics “dumb us down even more than reality television,” let’s watch the TED Talk below. It will take you as much time as an episode of a reality TV show:
I can 100% guarantee you weren’t “dumbed down” by watching David McCandless. Quite the opposite: I guarantee you learned more from one of his infographics than you have from any episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (or from all of RHOBH episodes put together).
The third argument is that infographics are “abysmal.” Everhart says, “If your infographic contains clip art, pie charts, bar graphs, or an abundance of typography, go back to the drawing board” (Source). I agree with 2 components of her argument, First, clip art should not be used for an infographic (or for visualization of any kind, for that matter). Secondly, pie charts can be retooled into something greater. John Tukey was responsible for infographics and data visualization as we know it today. Tukey does argue that data displayed using a pie chart can be reworked and displayed better using another visualization format. Similarly, Edward Tufte writes, “Given their low data-density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used” (Source).
However, bar graphs and typography are essential parts of data visualization that help us better understand complex data. Need proof? Consider both in the TED Talk “Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen.” Watch Rosling’s beautiful and exciting bar graph here:
Rosling proves that bar graphs work, and he proves at the 4:00 mark that infographics are far from dull, boring, and lifeless. According to Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics, Nathan Yau, self-proclaimed “data junkie” and PhD candidate in statistics, explains, “Charts and graphs have also evolved into not just tools but also as vehicles to communicate ideas” (Source). We understand from reading Yau’s book and seeing over 300 pages of examples that “different visualization tools use different data formats, and the structure you use varies by the story you want to tell” (Source).
Typography refers to “the art and technique of arranging type in order to make language visible” (Source). Obviously, without visible language, understanding most infographics would be impossible.
Everhart’s final argument is that, “Infographics aren’t all bad but enough of them have been done so blatantly bad that it has tarnished their reputation” (Source). I haven’t seen too many bad infographics, but even if I’d seen 99 bad ones, this one by David McCandless would convince me that no, infographics’ reputations are not tarnished:
Do you think infographics are dead? What other arguments can you think of to support data visualization?
*Thank you to Erin who corrected my misspelling of her name! It is “Erin Everhart”