Why choose to use an infographic?

The range of speakers at the ‘Design of Understanding’ and the range of work they create put me in mind of a theme I have been mulling over of late, that is the motivation behind creating any graphic. And looking back it seems this is a filter I’ve been applying to work I’ve featured on the blog.

I’m biased towards graphics that have been created because using a graphic is the best way of telling the story, the opposite of ‘we need a graphic to fill a space’ or ‘jazz up some information’ (information that is inevitably dull since otherwise it wouldn’t need jazzing up).

My infographic background has been in the editorial world and I acknowledge there is a spectrum – magazines, papers, websites have to be visually engaging and graphics can be good for this. But without a doubt the best graphics are the ones that address a problem to which the solution is most clearly communicated visually. I really struggle with the decorative graphics – I’d much rather a good illustration or photograph and some words.

We’ve all been confused by colourful, full screen, multi-layered interactive graphics that intrigue but leave you none the wiser. They are a show case for what someone could do with the data but rarely offer any real insight into the subject.

Another take on this argument from the data corner was summed up nicely by Simon Rogers of the Guardian’s Datablog: when faced with a heap of data he advises starting by asking yourself ‘what do you want to find out?’ not ‘what can you do with it?’. For examples of the latter just type ‘data visualization’ into Google as per the above grab.

This is one I like, the visualisation of a good, neat idea, but I find it slightly homeless since it has no peg, no context.

At its simplest level, it’s a style versus content argument. ‘Data vis’ has become so fashionable that frequently ‘wanting an infographic/data vis’ is the only driver for creating it. This generally leads to aesthetically pleasing, self-contained pieces, but they often suffer from a lack of context.

As well as knowing what story they want to tell the best graphics know their audience and where they are physically going to appear. Your design will vary depending on this knowledge, a point well made by the National Maritime Museum’s Fiona Romeo’s discussion of museum design.

Many people, particularly non-designers, love the self-contained or ‘look what I did with the data’ graphics out there so maybe I should take heed, but for now I’m just reflecting that I’ve discovered I’m in it for the storytelling.