John Pring - What Makes an Infographic Cool?
Guest Post by John Pring
For many, infographics are a relatively new phenomenon; we still get calls and enquiries from businesses and individuals who have ‘just discovered infographics’ and are looking to take advantage of the format. Similarly, many people who have seen the surge in popularity of a certain kind of data visualization consider infographics to be something of a ‘fad’ – an opinion usually formed by the combination of online proliferation of the term and the overuse of the format by SEO agencies as a link-building technique (just go to any SEO conference and you’ll be almost guaranteed to hear someone refer to infographics as a short-term trend that has already reached saturation point).
However, the truth is that infographics are by no means a new concept and they’re certainly not a fad that will disappear anytime soon (although I will concede that the general public will begin seeing a lot less of them once the SEO industry moves onto a new tactic for gaining inbound links to client sites).
Infographics and data visualizations have been around for thousands of years, even pre-dating the written language in the form of cave paintings from 30,000 BC, used to depict local resources and allow for visual records to be kept. Similarly, the Egyptians used hieroglyphs to tell stories about their culture, allowing future generations to learn a considerable amount about the Egyptian social structure and belief system.
Example of a 30,000BC cave painting used as an inventory for crops
(By the way, just to address a common question there is a difference between data visualization and infographics, but clarifying the distinction here isn’t a major concern).
Infographics have been around as long as we’ve been communicating with other human beings, and will continue to play an important role in our social and economic interactions for generations to come – which covers my first point in the consideration of infographics as a ‘cool’ format; they’ve been with us for as long as we’ve existed, facilitating communication and storytelling in a way that other formats (even written language) can often struggle to match.
But there are a couple of other reasons I love the infographic format, reasons that I think elevate them not just into the realm of being cool, but being one of the single most important communication tools at the disposal of the human race.
SOCIAL IMPORTANCE & TRANSLATION OF COMPLEX DATA
Infographics boast a level of social importance that rivals any other form of visual media; in fact, it’s fair to say (without any hint of hyperbole) that infographics have saved lives.
In 1857 Florence Nightingale produced a series of infographics called ‘Coxcomb Charts’, charting the different causes of soldier deaths during the Crimean War.
Nightingale was concerned around the number of deaths caused by poor hospital conditions, and decided to visualize the data in order to present a more compelling case to Queen Victoria. The Queen was shocked to see the data presented in such a clear an impactful way and these visualizations directly contributed to the improvement of hospital conditions, saving countless lives.
It’s worth noting here that Queen Victoria already had the statistics regarding solider deaths due to unsanitary conditions at her disposal, but it wasn’t until she saw the data visualized in such a dramatic fashion that she realized the true impact of hospital conditions compared to all other causes of solider mortality.
An excellent example of how infographics play a significant role in our everyday lives would contemporary road signs, particularly those in the United Kingdom.
These signs were developed in 1957 by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir, combining information design and semiotics to produce simple, clear pictograms that can be easily understood (even while driving at speed). These signs were produced well over 50 years ago and are still in use today, demonstrating their effectiveness at portraying information through visual stimuli.
In 2013, infographics are still playing an integral role in the social and political landscape – being used to both inform the general public of important information (for example the National Health Service in the UK used infographics to inform the general population of important changes to the way the health system worked) and to help inform decision makers at the top of the political spectrum. Data visualizations are regularly used to communicate complex statistical relationships to the government, helping them inform their decision-making and see patterns that would otherwise be extremely difficult to realize.
One of the main ways infographics can achieve this is through the compression and translation of large amounts of complex data; an achievement that is only possible through visual representation.
A fantastic example of this kind of data compression is the ‘Snake Oil’ interactive infographic produced by David McCandless and Andy Perkins in 2011:
The infographic presents data from over 1500 placebo-controlled human trials to visualize the effectiveness of specific supplements on certain conditions. According to McCandless the data took 3 researchers months to gather and validate, yet this visualization takes all this data and compresses it into one easy to understand graphic. The ‘balloon race’ concept (i.e. the higher the bubble the greater the evidence for its effectiveness in treatments of specific conditions) allows the reader to bypass the months of data gathering and reading, yet gain the same level of understanding (in terms of the most important information) as someone who had undergone the research process.
So we’ve looked at how infographics have pre-dated the written language, can save lives, portray important information in minimal time-frames, inform decision-makers, communicate important ideas to the general public and compress and translate huge, complex data sets. That should be more than enough to place infographics well and truly in the ‘cool’ column, but it doesn’t stop there; infographics are also one of the most effective educational tools we have at our disposal.
It’s now universally understood that the vast majority of us are visual learners, and there are numerous pieces of research that confirm the notion that information is easier to understand when displayed visually. This has obvious applications for education (whether it be primary school students or adult learners), but it’s not just comprehension that is improved by presenting information visually, as retention can also be improved dramatically.
Bandwidth of the Brain, courtesy of David McCandless and his TED talk
The above visualization from David McCandless shows how we take in information in any given second – as you can see the vast majority of the information we take in from the outside world is absorbed via sight, making it our primary learning channel. This visual absorption means information displayed visually is far more likely to stick in our brains, making data retention and recall far more successful.
So that’s it for my post on what makes infographics cool – and we didn’t even look at data organization (studies have shown that it’s easier to see patterns when data is displayed visually), the versatility of the infographic format (entertainment, link-building, education, business, sales tools, how-to guides, etc. etc.) abstract and schematic infographics (like Harry Beck’s London tube maps developed in 1933) or the fact that they’re hugely entertaining and far more engaging than traditional forms of communication and portraying data.
However, I will leave you with this. If none of the above convinces you that infographics are incredibly cool, then consider the plaque designed for the Pioneer space probe by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake:
Even when it comes to trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, one of the most potentially significant designs in human history, it’s an infographic we turn to.
John Pring is the director of inbound marketing and content creation at Designbysoap Ltd; a UK-based design and marketing agency specializing in content development and distribution.
Over the last few years John has overseen the production of thousands of bespoke infographics, data visualizations and interactive graphics for clients all over the world, including the European Commission, the BBC, AOL, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Ford and numerous others.
Designbysoap Ltd: www.designbysoap.co.uk
Designbysoap Facebook Page