Infographics - why you should eschew them

In January 2014, I attended a three-hour evening class on infographics (and by infographics, I mean funky imagery, not London Tube maps). I attended not because I like infographics - I despise them. Rather, I wanted to see if I could somehow find one or two reasons to maybe like them a little bit.

I didn't.

I instead found many reasons to despise them even more. This email lists some of those reasons. For more, buy my Clarity and Impact book, it has a 6-page Chapter on infographics - which even explains when it might...just might... be acceptable to do one.

I now realise I’m not meant to like them. The Class Instructor said that with infographics, it’s fine “to cheat data” if it better conveys messages, and added that infographics are liked by journalists and graphic designers. Well, count me out on all the above. I’m no infographicista (my word for those who love infographics). However, he also said that infographics are disliked by academics and statisticians - and I’m not them either. He didn’t say whether business people like or dislike them.

"The cobbler's children have no shoes" Those that promote infographics don't even use them themselves. For instance, the Class Instructor showed infographics that others had done to convey their messages to their audiences... yet to convey his messages to us, he didn't show us any (other than one shown for irony...). Also, I regularly get emails on the Joy of Infographics - the email says: "Infographics persuade, inspire, engage, motivate (blah, blah)... so commission us now to do one for you today!". Yet the email doesn't have an infographic to persuade me of all this. Instead, it persuades me with words. As the saying goes, the cobbler's children have no shoes. 

There's much sophistry in the arguments: the Class Instructor said: "Imagine Ikea instructions without diagrams". I wanted to retort: "Imagine fictional books without words".

Success has a thousand fathers, and so too with infographics. Take an interesting fact or insight - one that has clarity and impact - then add to it a little picture and an unusual font, and lo, infographicistas say it’s a good example of a good infographic. No. The interesting fact or insight is fine, if not better, without the picture and font.

There's much more to this topic, e.g. infographicistas often wrongly confuse visualisation with animation (they ain't the same). Also, broadsheet papers have infographics, but tabloids don't - which is very telling because... no wait. Let's stop there, it's enough for this email, other than two small final asides:

1. Think of the London Tube map: would it be better if adorned with cute icons of trains?

2. Infographics aren’t new. Diagrams is a book I was lucky enough to read in the 1980s, and it’s a fascinating compendium of, well, diagrams compiled by Arthur Lockwood in 1969. Infographicistas, read it and you might get déjà vu. (Déjà vu… didn't I talk about that earlier?)


P.S. my one act of subversion during the evening class. First, two bits of background: (1) many infographics make people crane their neck to read stuff - their words twist and turn and maybe even appear upside down; and (2) when I went to the class, I decided to sit at the front (thereby forcing me to stay to the bitter end) and not to be critical not argumentative. Put these two bits of background together, and here's my subversive act: whenever the Instructor showed an infographic and said how clearly it conveyed stuff, I’d quietly - yet conspicuously - twist my neck, shoulders and torso to the left, then to the right, then to the left again. I wanted to send a signal to those sitting behind me that the infographic was clear to read... only if you didn't mind struggling to read it.

I'm unsure if anyone behind me noticed this act of subversion...but I enjoyed myself.

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