The difference between data visualization and infographics

Yes­ter­day, Jeff Bul­las post­ed an arti­cle about Twit­ter stats. I have a great deal of respect for Bul­las’s writ­ing, and he’s an undis­put­ed leader in the Social Media world, espe­cial­ly in regard to build­ing share­able con­tent. But the info­graph­ic attached to the arti­cle was—how do I put this polite­ly?—bad.

I ana­lyze why the info­graph­ic is bad in anoth­er post, but the impor­tant thing here is that my reac­tion to it was actu­al­ly a lit­tle rage‑y. Yes, rage over a bad data viz is pret­ty damned geeky, I know, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when peo­ple use the term “info­graph­ic” as though it were a syn­onym for “Data Visu­al­iza­tion.” As if slap­ping a wit­ty or the­mat­ic design on some regur­gi­tat­ed num­bers auto­mat­i­cal­ly makes the top­ic sud­den­ly and mag­i­cal­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble to the read­er (the rage, it burns…). 

Hap­pi­ly, I am at least a lit­tle self-aware. After a lit­tle con­trolled breath­ing, I real­ized that there had to be more to my vis­cer­al response to a bad info­graph­ic gone viral than just poor anger man­age­ment. So I asked myself:

What is the dif­fer­ence between info­graph­ics and data visu­al­iza­tion?

We’ll start with Data Visu­al­iza­tion. Accord­ing to the inim­itable Edward Tufte in his book The Visu­al Dis­play of Quan­ti­ta­tive Infor­ma­tion:

Graph­ics reveal data. Indeed graph­ics can be more pre­cise and reveal­ing than con­ven­tion­al sta­tis­ti­cal com­pu­ta­tions.

Tufte’s cri­te­ria for “excel­lence”?


  • show the data
  • induce the view­er to think about the sub­stance rather than about method­ol­o­gy, graph­ic design, the tech­nol­o­gy of graph­ic pro­duc­tion, or some­thing else
  • avoid dis­tort­ing what the data have to say
  • present many num­bers in a small space
  • make large data sets coher­ent
  • encour­age the eye to com­pare dif­fer­ent pieces of data
  • reveal the data at sev­er­al lev­els of detail, from a broad overview to the fine struc­ture
  • serve a rea­son­ably clear pur­pose: descrip­tion, explo­ration, tab­u­la­tion, or dec­o­ra­tion
  • be close­ly inte­grat­ed with the sta­tis­ti­cal and ver­bal descrip­tion of a data set


Now, on to info­graph­ics. Just this morn­ing, Jeff Bul­las recy­cled an old­er arti­cle of his, The 7 key ele­ments to cre­at­ing suc­cess­ful info­graph­ics. How con­ve­nient for me. Here is what Bul­las has to say about the cri­te­ria for suc­cess in an info­graph­ic:

Info­graph­ics are the com­bi­na­tion of text and images to cre­ate max­i­mum impact. There are two core activ­i­ties to info­graph­ic suc­cess.

  1. Great design
  2. Suc­cess­ful pro­mo­tion and mar­ket­ing

Design­ing an info­graph­ic that isn’t mar­ket­ed prop­er­ly is like build­ing a great car but not telling any­one about it. It remains parked and hid­den in the garage.

Wait, what? Yes, that’s right: there’s no men­tion of data in the suc­cess cri­te­ria for an info­graph­ic, by one of the world’s most-fol­lowed Social Media experts. Oth­er than mak­ing sure that any sta­tis­tics are “fac­tu­al and reli­able, cur­rent and help­ful,” the 7 key ele­ments dis­cussed have noth­ing to do with actu­al­ly help­ing the read­er under­stand any­thing, but are all cen­tered around the def­i­n­i­tion of “suc­cess” as being “wide­ly shared.” In fact, accord­ing to the ‘super­pow­ers of a knock­out info­graph­ic’ he has on this post

53% of the most-shared info­graph­ics do not actu­al­ly con­tain data visu­al­iza­tion”

Double‑U. Tee. Eff. (pulling on the geeky-rage pants again)

But seri­ous­ly. This is WRONG ON SO MANY LEVELS. Data visu­al­iza­tion and mar­ketabil­i­ty aren’t mutu­al­ly exclusive—or at least, they don’t have to be. And this isn’t an issue with the tar­get read­ers of the info­graph­ics, either—most read­ers want infor­ma­tion in a digestible format—which is the point of info­graph­ics in the first place. Look­ing at this from a UX (NOT a graph­ic design) per­spec­tive, a well-designed info­graph­ic can reveal the data as well as be beau­ti­ful. By all the best UX design con­cepts, if the per­son inter­act­ing with your prod­uct can’t fig­ure it out, it’s not that they’re stu­pid, it’s that you’ve done it wrong. A bad info­graph­ic is the TL;DR of the design world: your view­er won’t get your mes­sage if they can’t make sense of it.

I hate to say it, but in this case I think that Bul­las is tak­ing the easy road and sell­ing his pro­fes­sion­al read­ers short, defin­ing his own area of exper­tise as the only axis by which “suc­cess” can and should be mea­sured for an info­graph­ic. To co-opt his car anal­o­gy: Bul­las is pro­mot­ing an Edsel. The Edsel got great mar­ket­ing, and was by all reports a per­fect­ly fine car; but it was­n’t the right fit for a new emerg­ing mar­ket. Just like the Edsel, these graph­ics are beau­ti­ful­ly done, pro­fes­sion­al, and high qual­i­ty by the stan­dards of what came before. Also like the Edsel, there is no account­ing for the mas­sive sea change in the mar­ket­place that they are being released into. Flashy design isn’t going to be enough to save a bad info­graph­ic in the inter­ac­tive era for much longer.

Bul­las is in a posi­tion to influ­ence the qual­i­ty of what we expect from info­graph­ics. I would love to see him use that influ­ence to be for­ward fac­ing and push for high-qual­i­ty, sharable data viz as the new gold stan­dard. The merg­ing of big data and mar­ket­ing has already hap­pened, and as good inter­ac­tive design­ers start cre­at­ing new ways to tease out visu­al under­stand­ing of that data, I want thought lead­ers like Jeff Bul­las to be on the front end of the rev­o­lu­tion. The more that he and the oth­er Social Media Mar­ket­ing gurus get on board with data visu­al­iza­tion, the faster we can get rid of the out­dat­ed Edsels in the fleet.

So please, Mr. Bul­las, do me a solid—these geek-rage pants are chaf­ing.


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