All of us encounter information graphics, or infographics, on a daily basis. They routinely accompany articles, both in print and online, are utilized in news reports, and are a popular means of sharing information on social media. In today’s technology-driven world, where information is available in such large amounts and from such diverse sources, infographics provide a packaging of information that makes its dissemination easy, practical and efficient. However, many of us are ignorant of the process utilized to produce these items which aid us in acquiring knowledge. This is an area that should be given more attention, as through the creation of infographics, decisions are being made, not only about what information we should be given, but how much of it, and in what form. These necessary decisions which are dictated by the overwhelming volumes of information available play a huge role in what we know, and in what we remain ignorant of.
Infographics have been around for hundreds of years, but it is only recently that their use has become so widespread. It is widely thought that the increased popularity of infographics is due to the endless amounts of information available through the internet and the fact that news is created and learned more quickly through our global culture. The media increasingly rely on this method of information visualization as it allows complex ideas to be more easily understood by a large majority of people regardless of their education level or social background. Infographics also allow a subjective presentation of knowledge, as the creator determines what is included and how it is presented, thus leading readers to the desired conclusion.
A discussion of infographics cannot be had without coming across the term data visualization, and often the two are incorrectly used as synonyms. While the two are quite similar, and there is a lot of overlap, they also have distinctions. To clarify, an infographic is a graphical representation of information which is created to simplify complex data and present it in a quick and easily comprehensible fashion. Generally, it is subjective as it is created to visually impart information in a specific way or to lead readers to a certain inference. In comparison, while the goal of data visualization is also to present information in a visual manner that is clear and efficient, it allows viewers to form their own judgment as to what the data signifies. As a result, data visualizations are usually more complex, often do not include text, they may be computer-generated through the use of algorithms, and they are typically updated as new data is gathered. In comparison, most infographics are static and unchanging, they are created to make a specific point, cull information to maintain the preferred conclusion, and regularly include supporting text. Of course, as more and more emphasis is being placed on the importance of utilizing proper aesthetics to convey ideas effectively, the difference between infographics and data visualization has sometimes become difficult to determine.
Although it is a point which is not often considered, the creation of infographics involves the realms of art, as well as science. To properly construct an infographic one must assimilate all of the data, determine what is necessary and relevant, and decide in which visual form this information can be presented most effectively; all of this must occur before the actual physical creation of the infographic and the utilization of the skills that this more artistic task requires. As such, a successful infographic is a true representation of form and function. Statistician and author Nate Silver comments that, “Design has traditionally been seen as a field for ‘right-brained’ types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers. But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism.”
The World at One View, 1854 infographic
Although anyone can create infographics with the aid of tools and templates easily found on the internet, traditionally, they were expected to meet an accepted set of standards to determine their level of success. The standard characteristics of an infographic were created by statistician and university professor, Edward Tufte, and shared in his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. According to Tufte, among the numerous tasks which an infographic should perform, it must show the data at several levels of detail without distortion. It should also encourage comparison and a focus on the substance presented instead of leading the viewer to wonder about methodology or technique of creation, and finally, it must have a clear purpose.
To reach these standards, one must consider the three parts that comprise an infographic: the visual, the content, and the knowledge. The visual aspect is easily defined, while the content refers to the statistical or factual information presented. In comparison, the knowledge denotes the insight gained or conclusions drawn from viewing the infographic. Of the three parts, the visual component is probably the most important part. People receive and process the majority of information they are exposed to in a visual manner, and the brain can process images more quickly than it can process texts. In addition, the majority of us are visual learners. That means that we comprehend more information when we see it, as opposed to hearing it. The visual aspect of an infographic may also serve as means to pique interest in the subject matter presented, thus making it more likely that a viewer will read the accompanying article or written information.
The increase in popularity of infographics is a reflection of how we choose to receive and process news and information in today’s technologically driven world. As times have changed, most of us no longer have the time, nor the patience to read a full-length article in a newspaper or magazine. In addition, it has been proven that as our daily life has become faster-paced, our attention span has become more limited. This aspect, combined with the vast amounts of information available, means that there is just too much to process. As a result, many of us turn to infographics. With their appealing colors and graphics, we are naturally drawn to them and prefer the visual feature over dense paragraphs of text. The organized structure of an infographic and the presentation of factual and statistical information give the appearance of reliability. In addition, the shorter length and self-contained aspect of infographics are attractive as well; an infographic stands alone, which means we don’t have to commit to reading a lot of content to gain knowledge on a subject. This makes them a perfect source of information for the manner in which we scan for knowledge; most of us dip into a site or skim an internet page for a few minutes before another task draws our attention away, as we don’t have time to commit to something more.
Despite the many benefits of infographics, they possess negative points as well. Although they are often made to accompany longer, in-depth pieces of reporting and draw a potential reader in with their visual appeal, many people don’t read past the infographic, thus missing out on a deeper breadth of knowledge. In addition, many infographics are badly made or present information which may provide a passing interest, but offers no lasting or useful knowledge. As a result, we are developing into a society lacking in thorough knowledge. We may possess endless amounts of quirky facts and fascinating tidbits of information, but this is not enough for in-depth discourse or a proper exchange of ideas. If infographics were to become a preferable method of information sharing, this could eventually have an impact on the quality of communication which takes place. Standards in journalism and reporting would further diminish and the useful knowledge which we receive would be severely undermined. Furthermore, as infographics are created to impart specific information and provide a predetermined conclusion for the reader to draw, they are a perfect tool for manipulation.
While infographics are entertaining, interesting, and often beautiful creations which aid in the dissemination of data to large and diverse groups of people, they also possess aspects which make them potentially harmful sources of knowledge. As the amounts of data and information available continue to increase, the rise in popularity of infographics is another sign that we must become more discerning consumers of information. We cannot trust others to decide what is or is not useful knowledge, nor should we limit our learning to colorful and appealing graphics. Instead, let’s use infographics correctly and remember the inherent limits that they contain; they can provide a jumping off point for sparking interest in a topic, offer an interesting perspective on an issue, or even bring to light a previously unknown aspect of a topic. However, at their source, infographics are created to reduce and reveal; they are made to illustrate factual information and simplify it, so they should not be taken as complete coverage of any topic. Above all, we should always consider the source of information before blindly believing everything we read.