The Great Infographics Debate: Chart Junk Chronicles

Chart-Junk-Chronicles-01Infographics – the word can have very different meanings depending on who you are and how long you’ve been involved in the visual thinking and communications community. In the last few years, the term infographics has become incredibly popular, but I suspect that most who now use this term are unaware of a deep schism in the visualization community about the term.

To many people, infographics are those really tall ‘tower infographics’, so popular on sites like visual.ly, filled with illustrations and a few numbers, popularized in the last couple of years by online marketers as link-bait. But, to a growing number of long-time information designers and journalists in the visualization community, this new style of graphics is no more an infographic than than a Twinkie is a fine meal.

These contemporary graphics have probably raised awareness of the use of visuals in communication. But, like many others, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re doing more harm to the visualization community than good. As both creator and curator in the visual communication space, I’m finding myself asked more and more frequently to review and share ‘Infographics.’ While I appreciate the time and enthusiasm that these people put into creating them, I find it hard to justify sharing most of them and I think it’s only fair to explain why. But doing so requires some context. I’ve been meaning to write a detailed chronology for some time about the great infographics debate and it’s associated “chart junk” debate. So, in somewhat chronological order, here’s some key events in the ongoing debate.

As best as I can tell, the debate seems to have started with Edward Tufte. Tufte, is probably the most famous contemporary information designer, considered by many to be THE authority on information design. It was Tufte who, if he didn’t initiate the great debate over graphics in information design, certainly made it more visible with the great “chart junk” salvo fired at information designer Nigel Holmes in Tufte’s 1990 book Envisioning Information.

But until the rise of big infographics, that debate likely had a limited audience of professional information designers. Big Infographics? In May 2010, data viz guru Nathan Yau of FlowingData.com chronicled the rise of what he called ‘Big Infographics,’ in his post, The Boom of Big Infographics, a great post that sets the background for the rise of the big tower infographics that are so prevalent today.

The debate seemed to heat up in 2010 and 2011 when Scott Bateman et al published, Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts in April 2010.

This prompted a couple of responses from Stephen Few, a thought-leader of the rational, conservative, scientific segment of the visualization community. Few chronicled the origins of the chart junk debate himself in his April/May/June newsletter, The Chartjunk Debate: A Close Examination of Recent Findings and followed up with commentary on the Bateman article later than year with another newsletter, Benefitting InfoVis with Visual Difficulties? Provocation Without a Cause – both highly recommended reading for anyone interested in visual communication of data and information.

The increasing use tower infographics by online marketers as link-bait began to draw the ire of many, exemplified by Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz in his October 2011 scathing cease and desist letter: Stop Already with the F*cking ‘Infographics,’

The fact is that these monstrosities are not infographics. These atrocities are crimes against good taste and everything that infographics really should be. They’re just a bunch of statistics jammed together on horrible vertical pages, bloated with bad drawings and clipart created by primitive monkeys using CorelDRAW! 1.0—graphical disgraces that most often disguise spam, commissioned by iniquitous companies looking to increase traffic to their sites. They should be stopped at once.

He then went on to point out good examples of real infographics as curated on Edward Tufte’s site.

2011 wrapped up with Jessica Hullman weighing in on the subject in her paper “Benefitting InfoVis with Visual Difficulties” IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics Volume 17 Issue 12, December 2011.

In May 2012, Ian Lurie proposed that these latest graphics shouldn’t even be called infographics, but rather posters, and enumerated 11 Reasons Your Infographic Isn’t an Infographic.

Andy Kirk, founder of Visualising Data, a UK-based data visualization design agency penned a thoughtful piece on the criticism debate in July 2012, which Robert Kosara quickly criticized on Eager Eyes, which prompted a An Analysis of Visualization Discourse by Michael Babwahsingh.

Another more moderated point of view of contemporary infographics was published recently in the Harvard Business Review just this last March, We’ve Reached Peak Infographic, and We’re No Smarter for It.

Alberto Cairo documented the origins of this schism along with his own insights in The Functional Art (p61 – 72), a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in visualizations. He says,

There has always been a fundamental clash in information graphics and visualization between those who favor a rational, scientific approach to the profession, emphasizing functionality, and those who consider themselves “artists,” placing emphasis on emotion and aesthetics.

And recently, Cairo shared some additional thoughts on the topic in an interview on iCharts, and on a guest post on Randy Krum’s Cool Infographics blog, What Makes an Infographic Cool.

The New York Times is considered to be the elite of the elite in information design and infographics. Their graphics editor Amanda Cox was recently interviewed on Harvard Business Review and offered the perfect sound bite for this debate:

Nicely designed posters with a few numbers on them aren’t really data viz.

Is this really an infographic or just a poster, or 'infoposter'?

Is this really an infographic?

Which, brings us up to date, as far as I know, on the great debate. I have no doubts that the debate will continue.  Despite the objections and attempts at education from the professional information designers, I suspect that the term infographic has now forever become synonymous with tower infographics. It would be nice if there were separate and distinct terms to describe the two types (I like the term info-posters myself) – after all, if you compare the styles you should see quite a difference.

Compare most of those ‘info-posters’ that are so prevalent on the web today with the infographics produced by the New York Times or National Geographic, or any winners of the Malofiej Conference or many of the visualizations on visualizing.org. Are they really the same thing? Yes, there may be some commonalities, but the metaphor that comes to mind for me is like comparing fizzy, sweet soda pop to a nice complex red wine – yes, both are beverages, but aside from that differences outweigh the similarities.

So, I think it’s incumbent on those who do see that there’s a difference to try to educate the public about the those differences and inform about the potential and power that true infographics have to visually communicate and explain.

Updates:

I’ll continue to post links to articles I come across that are relevant to this debate, in chronological order. Feel free to post links you find in the comments section.

Beware the Strawman – Stephen Few, May 9, 2013

3 Responses to “The Great Infographics Debate: Chart Junk Chronicles”

  1. Jeffrey Swartz May 9, 2013 at 7:33 am //

    Can’t tell you how useful this is and will be as we go through refs, thanks.
    Is there any reason why discussion of visualization for internal use with complexity in mind, as in Birgin Sevaldson’s work and writing (http://ocs.sfu.ca/nordes/index.php/nordes/2011/paper/view/409), is consistently ignored in these debates?

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  2. JeffBennett May 9, 2013 at 7:40 am //

    Re Sevaldson’s work, I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I was unaware of it. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Keira Bui May 11, 2013 at 9:18 am //

    I just came across your blog and really like it! Keep up the good work.

    Regarding this article, I agree. There are too many infographics on the Internet, and not so many of them are well-designed and well-researched.

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