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Off the Charts

We‘ve reached peak infographic, and we’re no smarter for it.

Dylan C. Lathrop is a designer who thought it was yesterday all day. 

If I were to chart the evolution of my attitude toward infographics over time, it would start with a soaring arc, dip and rise, then drop into a steady flat line. My personal interest in data visualizations has waned, but demand is higher than ever—and I’ve devoted much of my career to propping up that demand. For three years, I’ve distilled data into graphs and illustrations that I’m proud to call my own. But I’ve also scratched my head at more slickly designed, low-info infographics than I care to count.

Infographics may seem like the design trend of the moment, but they have a long history. In 1920s Europe, Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz launched “The Isotope Project,” pioneering the use of simple visual methods for conveying critical data. Neurath, a social scientist, wanted to create an “international picture language” that could explain important political and social issues to people who couldn’t read. With designer Arntz, he created 4,000 pictograms to communicate information necessary to ordinary lives. Many of their original icons still grace our bus stops and government buildings.

Neurath and Arntz were designing for an audience that couldn’t read. Today, many people just don’t want to. There’s never been more data at our fingertips, but most of us have trouble making sense of that glut of information unless it’s shaped into cohesive nuggets. Enter the modern infographic, which has moved away from the elegant simplicity of the Isotype icons in favor of communicating entire data sets in one smartly designed package.

Our data is growing more complicated just as readers are getting less patient. Even the best illustration can’t bridge the comprehension gap. Sometimes, good design even enables mental shortcuts. Glance at an infographic, and you can feel like you’ve processed massive amounts of information. Share, tweet, or like the infographic online, and your friends can see just how much you’ve learned without even looking themselves. Designers (and the outlets that commission them) have figured out that they can emphasize pretty and clicky over useful and interesting, which means Neurath and Arntz’s work has taken on an exploitative new dimension.

Ever peered deep into the belly of an infographic and wondered, “Is there anything connecting these numbers other than this illustration?” You’re just beginning to see the Matrix, Neo. The model of simplicity executed by Neurath and Arntz has mutated to become more about design than data, creating a glut of attractive imagery with little reliable or even compelling information. Isotype worked because it collected relevant civic data and distributed it using functional design. Today, the goal is to make infographics viral, regardless of the story they tell. This practice has broadened the definition of what we refer to as an “infographic.”

I’ve been part of the problem. Once, I was asked to create an infographic using some weak data on marijuana. I pushed through a design that amounted to three weed-joke illustrations, no charts, and almost no numbers. Forgive me, Otto, for I have sinned. May this joint light the way to my redemption.

It’s time we acknowledge the shortcomings of infographics as much as we celebrate their upsides. That’s harder to do now that infographics have exploded as a cottage industry within design. The boom began in 2006 with the launch of GOOD magazine, my former employer, which emphasized infographics from the start and was named a National Magazine Award finalist for its work in 2008. Fast Company and Wired entered the game. Today, entire design studios are dedicated to creating these illustrative data dumps.

Since leaving my job earlier this year, I’ve had the opportunity to create infographics on a freelance basis for several publications. When I speak to potential clients, I often realize that they’re more interested in churning out the form than in telling a story. An idea without supporting data; a list; a business plan; a resume—none of these are infographics, no matter what they’re labeled. And even if the data exists, just because you can create an infographic doesn’t mean you should.

Worse yet, private businesses are increasingly controlling the form. Companies looking to illustrate their capabilities and showcase their potential collaborate with a “media producer” to present the facts as the company sees them. There’s nothing wrong with a business leveraging visual vocabulary to tell its story. But potential customers tend to view an infographic less skeptically than an ad. 

These visual interlopers haven’t undercut the form entirely. There are still honest-to-goodness data visualizers out there, like Bloomberg Businessweek’s Jennifer Daniel and Facebook’s Nicholas Felton, and other talented artists pushing infographics in new directions, like New York Times contributor Andrew Kuo. But more and more infographics are starting with questions like “Will this blow up on the internet?” or demands such as “I want an infographic! About what? Whatever!” And these so-called information graphics threaten to undermine even the most shining examples.

Infographics can evolve by transcending cold data-breakdown, and combining data visualization with more human narratives. Some publications have begun to present well-designed information in tandem with deeply reported pieces online, and the future it represents is thrilling. I’m not ready for an infographic about the death of infographics, but I’m sure someone somewhere has already assigned that piece, and is just waiting for us all to click.

End