Do you like infographics? Your answer doesn’t tell much because we’ve been using that word for very different things.
The word “infographics” started its life as a portmanteau for “information graphics”, denoting the products of data visualization and information visualization.¹ Over the years, a new type of visual product has hijacked this word as its name within popular culture: the “let’s make people read these sentences by putting cute illustrations, pie charts and huge numbers around” type. The hijacking was so successful that I’ll call this new type, well, “infographics”. (And I won’t use this word for data/information visualization.)
Even though the word “infographics” is still used by many for data/information visualization as well as the new type infographics, I believe we should neatly define these as two separate things and clear up the name confusion.
Infographics are very different from data/information visualization (dataviz/infoviz) products. They do not engage with rich amounts of data or semantic information using appropriate statistical visualization methods or custom information architectures. Instead of studying a very specific problem/question in detail, they tend to scatter bits of found information from a wider subject area. They don’t aim to allow us to see patterns and extract new information from collections of data. They use color and illustration mostly for decoration instead of function. (Contrast with an anatomy textbook, a case of information visualization, where illustration and colors are not there to support the communication – they are the communication.) Their favorite method of engaging with numbers is to display them in huge point sizes to catch the readers’ eye/interest. They love pie charts – an inefficient way to show data but it adds a technical-yet-cool feeling. (See a parody by Phil Gyford.)
These classic features of infographics are not definitive – there exist many types of them. Looking at examples with a critical eye would help grasp the difference between infographics and data/information visualization. For nice examples of dataviz/infoviz, you can look at places like Infosthetics and Flowing Data. Visual.ly is full of infographics, although you can stumble upon other types of work too. Infographics usually look more inviting than data/information visualization at first sight, and that is their main purpose. After they get you in, they tell what they have to tell with sentences written around those generic illustrations, simple charts, big numbers, etc. which only serve as baits to keep your attention throughout the reading experience. Remove the visual elements, and you don’t lose much information. (By the way, you can buy “infographics elements” from many stock illustration websites – that’s how generic they are.)
Data/information visualizations, on the other hand, are tools to explore data or learn complex information directly through custom visual elements. You lose all of the information (or a big chunk of it if there is some explanatory text around) if you remove the visual elements. (Think of the anatomy textbook.) Information visualizations depict complex entities/ideas/processes with visual structures. Data visualizations can reveal hidden patterns of variables that allow people to draw their own conclusions. Looking at a data/information visualization is an active process where the viewer freely navigates within a visual system and uses the visual tools to extract/construct information, whereas infographics are like television; they spell out the chosen messages one by one to a passive viewer, in a linear fashion – that’s why the tall (vertical) image scrolled down in a blog column is the perfect format for them.
Infographics are basically visually decorated paragraphs of text, like children’s books. No, I’m not implying that they are useless or discarding them; they are useful in their own ways and goals. People don’t like to read, and infographics make people read a few sentences and get the message across – and make it memorable. (See the xkcd parody.) This too is a design problem indeed; infographics can be seen closer to poster design or editorial design in this respect. But we should be able to tell them apart from data/information visualization and clarify our vocabulary for information designers as well as lay people. These two types of visual products have different purposes, different formats of content, different communication methods, different production processes, different mindsets. I believe they deserve to have different names. (Note that I’m not saying anything about the subject of the work; you can make a data visualization about a TV show, and an infographic about human genetics.)
When clients want “infographics”, I always ask which one it is; neutral visualizations of rich data/information or colorful tall layouts with sentences and cute illustrations? Because, in my experience, it can be either of them when they say “We want infographics”. (And I am only interested in doing the former.) We’ve come to use the same word for very different products. This is not only a communication problem; sometimes these clients themselves don’t exactly know what they want because they don’t have a distinction between the two in their minds. So it’s a bad idea to use the same word for different things for the stages of conceptualization and thinking as well. My plea isn’t just about the words we use, it’s about being able to distinguish the different kinds of disciplines/designers/products out there.
The word “infographics” may have been created to denote data/information visualization, but it’s too late now: people love infographics and they call them “infographics”. I suggest we leave that word in its natural habitat, and use only “data visualization” (“dataviz”) and “information visualization” (“infoviz”) for these types of work.² And I suggest we correct people when they use the wrong words (both ways – yes, there are people who use “data visualization” for infographics). This is what I’ve been doing for a long time, and it had a clarifying effect for people around me, clients included, by properly defining these different families of visual products. I hope you’ll join me.
1. For those who ask: I have a somewhat clear distinction in my mind between data visualization and information visualization: when it visualizes a collection of numerical data (or some other variable) that could be arranged in a table, it’s dataviz (example1, example2). When it deals with semantic information that could be expressed with sentences or drawings, I call it infoviz (example1, example2). Some (example1, example2) can be hard to put in one category, but they’re definitely not infographics.
2. Why am I surrendering the word so easily? Years ago, when infographics were first emerging, I was saying “Well this is not an infographic” and explaining why. Now that the word has globally and irreversibly become the name of those other things, I can only say “if this is called “infographics” from now on, then what I do isn’t infographics.” Fortunately, I don’t have to invent new words; the world of infographics doesn’t have an alternative word for it but “dataviz” and “infoviz” are readily available for the other side. I also use “information design” as a general term for the world of dataviz and infoviz.
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