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Bringing Infographics And Visualization to the Mainstream: Not Just the Tools, but the Ideas

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Alberto Cairo, author of The Functional Art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization, explains that the democratization and commoditization of infographics is a wonderful trend, but it will get even better if it is informed by a solid understanding of certain universal guidelines.

“Visualization is going mainstream, after all. Big time.”

That's what I thought a few weeks ago, during a flight from San José, Costa Rica, to Miami, where I teach how to use statistical charts, maps, diagrams, and illustrations to make the world intelligible. After my 1-year old girl fell asleep on her mother's lap, and my 6-year old boy immersed himself in a video game, I turned the personal entertainment system on and browsed the movies. I picked The Avengers.

Months before our trip, I had enjoyed Joss Whedon's colorful extravaganza in the theatre. I decided to give it a second look to spot the nerdy jokes the director is so fond of. There are plenty of them, but what caught my eye the most was the use of slick interactive graphics in many of the scenes. There's a certain conversation between Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk) that is a graphics feast. It includes what seems to be an animated stream graph -- a very uncommon, ribbon-like kind of visualization that encodes the change of one or more variables across time. “That's bold,” I thought. “When it comes to visualization, stream graphs are at the cutting edge.”

Geek talk aside, the truth is that information visualization is becoming a commodity thanks to many developments in the past few years. Just a decade ago, if you needed to design good charts, maps, or diagrams, it was almost mandatory to hire a professional designer. That's still advisable in most cases, but today the most common kinds of graphics are within anybody's reach. Just think of Tableau Public (1), Fernanda Viegas' and Martin Wattenberg's Many Eyes (2) ―even if it has not been updated in ages―, Visual.ly, Infogr.am, Data Wrapper, Google Charts, Fusion Tables, and the other many open source or free tools available out there.

Moreover, visualization scripting languages have become friendly even to those folks who feel itchy when they hear words like “variable” or “array.” Take Ben Fry and Casey Reas' Processing (3), or JavaScript, when combined with libraries like D3 (4) and Raphaël (5). In the past ten years we have abandoned a scenario of scarcity (“I'd just use Excel, Illustrator, and Flash”) to enter one of plenty. In fact, it has become so plentiful that sometimes it is hard to decide what tool to use among the many available. My hunch is that this variety will only tend to increase in the near future, software programs will become even easier to use, and their default options will be of higher quality.

There's more evidence of an infographics and visualization boom. Just a few weeks ago, NASA announced its JPL Infographics initiative (6), which is based on “extensive collections of NASA science and mission data, graphics and space images that members of the public can download and use to create their own infographics.” Before JPL, the amount of competitions, conferences, and summits about information graphics was already increasing at a high pace. It is a good time to be in this business. There's much to be done and much to be learned and discovered. There are also challenges to overcome. The most important one is education on the basics.

Search for “best infographics” in Google. You will experience a vexing, oxymoronic revelation: You will find dozens of examples of bad infographics, in which ornaments obscure messages and decoration gets in the way of stories. You'll stumble upon compositions filled with unabashed visual noise, and abstract data visualizations in which the priority of designers seems to have been to show off their programming skills, rather than be true to their role of storytellers, explainers, and intermediaries between complexity and the public.

To a large degree, this phenomenon is the result of marketing, advertisement, and PR agencies arrogating the very word “infographics” without respecting the long and distinguished tradition that this term has in news media. Too many of these agencies strive to create viral messages without worrying much about quality. Their priority is the decoration of some random and unconnected facts and figures, not substance, depth, and context. They don't need you to understand anything; they just want to grab your attention for a few seconds and sell you something: a product, a service, an idea.

Is decoration always bad? My own approach to ornament and playful beauty in information graphics is quite simple: I am not against them in principle, as I am not a strict minimalist, but I stick to what the famous art critic Herbert Read wrote in his 1934 classic Art and Industry: “The only real justification for ornament is that it should in some way emphasize form.” To communicate efficiently by means of graphic representations of data and phenomena, decoration should never hurt clarity, even if your first or only goal is to sell, not to enlighten.

The previous few lines summarize one of the many simple rules of thumb that I believe should always be followed. There are many others “be clear and deep before trying to be cool,” “think about structure and integrity before thinking about type and color palettes”― but it seems to me that they are being ignored by a growing body of designers and other creative types. The democratization and commoditization of infographics is a wonderful trend, but it will get even better if it is informed by a solid understanding of certain universal guidelines. These should be studied while you play around with the software.

Moreover, internalizing principles is advisable before you can thoughtfully break them at the right time. That's why I wrote my own book, The Functional Art (7), and why I recommend my students at the University of Miami, UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya to keep an eye on people like Edward Tufte, Stephen Few, Steven Kosslyn, William Cleveland, Howard Wainer, Colin Ware, Naomi Robbins, Nathan Yau, Dan Roam, Connie Malamed, Andy Kirk, and so many others (8). The contents of their writings are based not just on personal taste, but on reasoning, science, and logic. You may ―must― disagree with them at some point, but you should never ignore them.

That is for the professionals, but what about the general public? The visual representation of information is such a powerful tool that I am convinced that it has to be formally taught in schools. Graphics are a language, they have a grammar and a vocabulary that need to be learned before they can be used properly (9). We educate our kids on reading words already. Let's teach them also how to extract meaning from scatter plots and choropleth maps, how to design graphics to explore, analyze, clarify, and convey information, how to think with pictures. Rudolf Arnheim made the case for this in his book Visual Thinking (10). We are a visual species, not just a verbal one. Let's use that to our advantage.

(1) http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/
(2) http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/
(3) http://processing.org/
(4) http://d3js.org/
(5) http://raphaeljs.com/
(6) http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2012-222&rn=news.xml&rst=3451
(7) http://www.thefunctionalart.com
(8) A recommended readings list http://www.thefunctionalart.com/2012/06/information-graphics-and-visualization.html
(9) Some schools are already doing this. Read http://www.thefunctionalart.com/2012/04/charts-for-kindergartens.html
(10) http://books.google.com/books?id=DWmtB9szhFsC&printsec=frontcover&hl=es#v=onepage&q&f=false

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