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Infographics are dead. Long live infographics!

Written by
Craig Hughes
September 9, 2013

In the spirit of nostalgia, I feel compelled to pay homage to Drew Davies’s maiden “Be A Design Group” post with this dire warning:

Everyone must stop making infographics.

(Before we begin, you really should read his classic.) To support my case, you must indulge me as we take a trip back in time: The year is 1869; after a lifetime of civil engineering, Charles Joseph Minard publishes one of his last information graphics, considered by many experts today (including the legendary designer and statistician Edward Tufte) to be “the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” In his map titled “Losses of the French Army in the Russian Campaign 1812-1813,” Minard deftly illustrates the story of Napoleon’s disastrous charge into Russia. The advance of his army is represented in tan, their retreat in black. You may be tempted to scroll by this image, but this one really needs to sink in at full size:

Minard's Infographic

Minard’s map “defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence.”

The 144-year-old chart above illustrates 5 dimensions of data in a single 2-dimensional graphic. (If it hasn’t sunk in yet, allow me to prod a little more: many “infographics” you see trending today deal with only 1 dimension of data.) Minard set out to craft graphics that offered new insight or helped improve decision-making in complex scenarios. No unnecessary junk; just quality storytelling. It was this philosophy that most early information designers found themselves reinforcing (and some still do). Data visualization wasn’t a trend; it was a way of revealing patterns through the power of design that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Fast forward…

to the computer age and the ubiquity of Excel and Illustrator: what once required careful planning, calculation, and drawing can now be generated (and glazed, gradiented, skewed, and 3-D-ified) in mere seconds. What happens when you reduce the process of creating meaningful information graphics down to software and aesthetics? Unfortunately, laziness. Countless disasters could have been avoided with better data visualization, including the explosion of two NASA space shuttles. Make no mistake; good data visualization can save lives.

With the viral outbreak of the personal infographic in the mid-2000s, designers across the United States dusted off their gothic condensed typefaces and began making decorations (what we tend to call “infographics”) of nearly meaningless, one-dimensional data. Infographics became design porn. Gone was the thoughtfulness; the storytelling; the hidden patterns; the earth-shaking revelations of beautifully rendered data; or the simple principle that percentages of a whole should add up to 100%…

The bane of infographics

The GOP puts up a good fight because they have 193% of the peoples!

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man who hates technology, allow me to clarify: I don’t blame technology. I blame us. And I say this with all the love of a best friend who demands the keys after a night of too much drinking:

I blame us…

as designers, for never bothering to take statistics classes in college—a no-arguments requirement for making great infographics. I blame us for never studying Research Methodology to understand what makes good data in the first place (poor insights = poor storytelling = poor infographics).

Bad infographic

Nevermind the uselessness of this graphic; what’s especially troublesome is the designer’s ethics regarding the size of the circles.

I blame us for not pushing back when a boss or client asks for a trendy infographic of one-dimensional data that are best written as a sentence. I blame us for creating oversized eye-candy that obfuscates the actual story attempting to be told. I blame us for not asking ourselves “what makes this infographic important?” I blame us for buying into trends too easily, then duplicating them into a stream of ever-declining blandness (See also: the good, the bad, and the ugly of the recent hand-lettering trend). And yes, I (sort of) blame us for killing astronauts.

Another bad infographic

Background texture: check! Busy layout: check! Complete obfuscation of the important story to be told: check!

So, to come full circle on Mr. Davies’s exemplary formula, I must implore everyone to immediately stop creating irresponsible infographics. I ask this of the community at large because I believe that data visualization is a wonderful gift that can reveal so much about the world we live in, but we are dangerously near to causing it (and ourselves) irreparable harm. We are at a crossroads: either educate ourselves to expertly display information (give this one a read too), or bruise the reputation of designers by showing the world that we are merely decorators instead of the expert problem-solvers and systems-thinkers that we really are.

Much love,
Craig Hughes

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