Last week, we wrote about our loathing of pie charts. That piece seems to have struck a nerve, so it's about time we addressed a second major beef with modern data visualization: infographics have become abjectly terrible.
Infographics have a long, noble history that began the moment William Playfair invented the chart and ended roughly five minutes after marketers learned how little you could get away with paying a visual designer to make an infographic for a brand.
Infographics have become a massive presence online — a poorly sourced, visually galling, informationally empty presence — and it's actually a problem
So, let's break down the top 11 reasons that infographics are awful.11. The art designers are often expected to make something out of nothing.
Here's an example of an infographic about social media or something. The infographic is literally four of this image in a row.
So, this is one fourth of the entire infographic and it has four pieces of information, all wedged into the bottom quintile.
This is clearly a situation where an art designer was handed sixteen numbers and asked to make an infographic about it. The rest of it is pictures of chairs and televisions.
In fact there's another problem this image exemplifies...10. No axes
So does anyone know what any of this actually means?
There is one usable number on there – '2' — but otherwise zero quantification.
Here's another example of a chart from an infographic that doesn't actually contain any actual information because there's no left axes on the thing:
One might think that the annual mortality from cancer may be a somewhat important statistic for many Americans. But all this chart shows is "it went up and then down" in orange and blue, which is altogether pretty useless.
Where does the axis actually start? Is the bottom zero? Has the rate halved, or does the axis start somewhat higher, meaning that there has been less progress than the chart indicates?
Here's one final example that excellently segues into our next point as well. First off, that's a clown axis. Next, note how negative the negative values don't actually make sense at all:
9. Infographics are what happens when you take the worst of PowerPoint and the worst of Excel and throw it into Photoshop.
So, moving from the previous example, the worst thing that comes out of Powerpoint are those arrows that don't actually tell you anything about the thing in question:
That chart didn't actually tell us what Seer is or who precisely would want to pay money for it. Classic Powerpoint misdirection.
The worst thing that comes out of Excel are pie charts and their ilk:
And the people who design infographics seem really into all that. Which is terrible.8 . Rows and rows of the-guy-from-the-Men's-room-sign are an awful way to articulate anything
The chart where you show a small man and compare it with quantities of other small men are problematic for a whole bunch of reasons [besides sexism].
These charts are frequently used to do one of three things
1. To over-complicate a perfectly good bar chart by stacking random men, thus confusing the reader:
2. To show a ratio that could be just as easily written as a number. In fact, by doodling little men and forcing your reader to (a) count the little men or (b) ignore this dumb chart, you're actually defeating the purpose of the chart — to make information more understandable:
3. To show a really really big number of people and/or kill space
In every case, just writing a number or making a bar chart will make this so much easier to understand. Why do you need all of those light blue people in that last chart?
Seriously, are infographic designers paid by the inch?
7. Pie charts — the worst charts — are far too common in infographics for them to be okay
We've talked about pie charts before. But people who make infographics are obsessed with them, and it's really disconcerting.
Here's one particularly egregious example that we just had to post, made by someone who doesn't understand the point of a pie chart:
That's all we're saying about pie charts because we've already said it all before.6. Infographics bombard you with numbers because they're not actually intended to educate you .
Think of the last full infographic you saw. You've definitely seen one recently.
Do you remember what it was about? How about who produced it?
Most importantly can you recall a single statistic you read from it?
If you answered no, don't worry, that's on purpose.
The rapid-fire chart and number onslaught isn't actually designed to educate you. They're designed to sell you whatever the producer wants to sell you. They're designed to intimate credibility through data you're not supposed to actually absorb in order to sell you a product or to make you think the firm that produced it is credible. They're advertisements.
If they were for educational purposes, why are you probably having trouble recalling a single statistic form the most recent infographic you saw?
If the intention was to teach, you wouldn't have a dozen different kinds of information — bar charts, line charts, Venn diagrams, numbers, pie charts – because everyone knows that kind of is difficult for human brains to assimilate.
The point of the infographic is to compel you to remember their point, not their data. As we'll see later, you often have excellent reasons to mistrust their data.
5. The style is already so hackneyed.
Seriously, how many times can you put a title that is in a unique font [but not Helvetica] next to an extra-large bolded number next to an illustration next to a chart before you just get bored?
This is every infographic ever:
See the point? Title in unique font. Illustration. Large bolded numbers hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Attempt at chart.
There is zero innovation going on.4. Infographics mean that people feel free to publish essays on a JPEG
Look at all these words:
It's like this for around a foot and a half.
Anyone actually interested in reading words off of a JPEG? This is an essay that got broken up into sentences.
Just write an article if you don't have any actual quantitative information to convey.3. Infographics are full of useless crap that doesn't add anything to the chart at all besides something to distract you from what's being conveyed.
A brief example from the outstanding but unfortunately defunct TerribleInfographics Tumblr:
How exactly does the rather offensive Italian stereotype improve the information conveyed in the chart?
Sometimes the charts themselves are made up of useless crap.
Here's another salient example from TerribleInfographics:
This is just awful. Why did the designer replace nice, informational bars with frivolous word art (Seriously, "Whee"?) and in doing so strip this chart of actual usable information?
Did the editor decide phallus bars were just a step too far?2. Infographic designers seem to be really into Venn Diagrams without actually knowing how they work.
Venn diagrams have taken a beating.
Here are the ground rules of Venn Diagrams. They work in the following scenarios:
- You are comparing two sets of things that have some overlap with one another
- You are comparing three sets of things that have some overlap with one another
- With specially designed Venn diagrams, you can have up to five overlapping sets, but it's gonna look weird.
So this right here:
That's not a Venn Diagram. That's an Euler diagram.
It's kind of similar, but notice how red can't intersect with green and only green nor can blue intersect with yellow and only yellow.
If someone used an Euler diagram, that looks like that — god forbid additional circles — one of three things happened:
- They are being sarcastic, cheeky, or ironic
- They are in that specific situation where red and green don't intersect and blue and yellow don't intersect.
- They are making stuff up and trying to look smart by inserting a useless Euler diagram.
So unless it's several ellipses, they're probably abusing the Venn. 1. Their sourcing is abysmal
When someone is making stuff up or skewing data, it makes the most logical sense for the individual to make it as difficult as possible to verify their claims.
Luckily for such individuals, infographics are a perfect medium to publish poorly-sourced or inaccurate information online.
Normally, when you have a piece of information you yourself did not discover, you appropriately source the individual or institution that did. This gives the data — and yourself — credibility. With infographics, there is zero accountability for information veracity.
These citations won't be tied to individual elements of data within the infographic — creators seem to abhor footnotes for whatever reason — but instead, a hodgepodge of pseudo-accurate sources.
By and large, there are three ways that they say this information:
- Wikipedia article
- Highly generic web address (e.g. www.mit.edu, www.doj.gov) or agency (e.g. NASA) where you will never find the actual data source ever. These also may link to the company the infographic is shilling for.
- A very specific web location that you're expected to type out into your browser bar by hand since you can't copy and paste from a JPEG.
So please stop making infographics. Or, if you want to continue making infographics, I've only really encountered two people who do them well:
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