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.
- Great design
- 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.