Please Step Away From the Infographic!

I’ve tried very hard to be nice but I can’t bite my tongue any longer: Please, stop it with the infographics.  Most of them are bad.  If I were still a bratty 15-year old, I would dryly say that “I feel dumber for having read that” after seeing most infographics.  But I’ll be more professional and offer some specific criticisms.

Most infographics:

  1. Obliterate nuance and ignore subtleties and differences by carelessly aggregating many different sources of information.  By no means am I opposed to integrating knowledge and synthesizing data from multiple sources!  But it must be done carefully because it’s rare that different studies or sources of data align well.  When it’s done carelessly we can draw false conclusions.  These problems compound as more sources are thoughtlessly tossed together until we’re saying things that we simply don’t know are true.
  2. Don’t tell us where the data come from.  Sure, many infographics have a list of sources at the bottom.  But most of the time that’s all we get: An unordered list that doesn’t tell us which bits of information came from which sources.  I guess that kind of list is better than nothing, but not by much.  This is quite puzzling and frustrating because it seems like such an easy thing to fix.  Infographics designers, please look up “footnotes” and “endnotes” because this is a problem we solved a long time ago.
  3. Don’t need to exist in the first place because the “graphics” add nothing to the “information” being conveyed.  I know that infographics are the hip, new thing (I know they’re neither hop nor new – play along because many people still believe that!) but if your message can be better communicated through a different medium then you’re hurting yourself and impeding your message by forcing it into an unhelpful series of “graphics.”

Of course, I’m not the first one to whine about the infographic plague.  For example, Megan McArdle is spot on when she notes that most infographics are created by hacks who haven’t done any research or produced anything useful but want to convince you that they’re experts so you’ll hire them or buy something from them.  I’m also sure that someone has eviscerated the banal characteristics of the infographic genre (e.g. color palette lifted straight from the early-mid 2000s Web 2.0 explosion, percentage values liberally scattered about in large fonts).

A great (?) example of a terrible infographic is this one recently published by Mashable.  It meets all three of the criteria listed above.  Sadly, most infographics I’ve seen meet at least two if not all three of those criteria.

But not all infographics are terrible.  It’s very simple but this one recently published by Bloomberg is effective and informative.   The infographic that is displayed when you click on the “Cost to students & school” button on the left is ok.  But the bar graphs displayed when you click on the “Conference comparison” button are very informative and useful.

Before you make your next infographic or start passing around a link to an infographic, please consider whether the infographic avoids the three pitfalls listed above.  If it doesn’t, please step away from the infographic!

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  • http://ericstoller.com/blog/ Eric Stoller

    Thanks Kevin. This needed to be written. Bad infographics are eroding our minds.

  • http://mistakengoal.com Kevin R. Guidry

    Thanks. It’s hard to find a balance between being (a) critical and skeptical and (b) an asshole. But it saddens me how quickly and easily our colleagues accept and perpetuate information of dubious quality and unknown provenance.

  • http://ericstoller.com/blog/ Eric Stoller

    Are we part of a field that truly engages in critical thinking??? Maybe? Sometimes? But all too often, it seems like many just line up and imbibe whatever Kool-Aid is in front of them.