We get sent so many infographics, and it is so hard to know what to do with them; I am beginning to wonder if the infographic as we know it has outlived its usefulness. I have always been a fan of Edward Tufte's classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, where the author explains:
Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency. Graphical displays should ... induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else.
I wonder what he thinks of the current trend toward infographics. They seem to do the exact opposite: They take about ten times the space to convey information than a few words might, they are often all about graphic design over substance, they are almost impossible to use compared to conventional text with hyperlinking references, and in so many cases, just wrong.
There are some that are terrific at making complicated information comprehensible and digestible; GOOD has produced quite a few of them, and the video above explains how journalists are using visualization techniques to "prepare for a future in which data becomes a medium." Some, like this mile-long one from Our Amazing Planet, Tallest Mountain to Deepest Ocean Trench, uses the format to give a sense of scale and proportion; the medium excels at that. Our friends at Wellhome use the medium to explain Cap and Trade; you try and do that in words without your readers falling asleep.
But most seem to be exactly the opposite. One of the worst I have ever seen Greenwashed, purported to teach about greenwashing, and gets just about everything wrong from top to bottom. The most hilarious portion is advises that the best way to avoid greenwashed products is to go to a big box store instead of your neighborhood "green boutique." Interestingly the whole thing links to a site offering online marketing degrees.
Another one, from a company that purports to know something about energy, produces an infographic suggesting that changing windows, putting in a geothermal heating and cooling system, and reinsulating the home with some undefined spray foam will make it sell faster, without mentioning that the cost of doing those three things would probably exceed the average sale price of a home in America right now.
On seeing this one, our resident chemist screamed OMG! it has "Synthetic Formaldehyde!" (Prolly way worse than the regular kind - I'm soooo scared)
But perhaps the biggest problem is that while they are a pretty way of conveying information, they are so difficult to check. The one I show a bit of here makes a number of claims, trying to demonstrate that e-coupons are greener than paper ones. I wouldn't think that would be a stretch to prove.
They provide links at the bottom, which are of course part of the image so you can't even copy and paste them. I checked every one of them out and could not find a single fact relevant to the discussion in the infographic. They may be there somewhere, but I couldn't find them.
I checked out the Central Park link to see if this fact was verifiable on their site, and all I could find was that a) the park has 823 acres and b) it has 24,000 trees. Nowhere could I find that it was capable of holding 590,100. Google will tell you pretty quickly that the average forest has 400 trees per acre, which would total slightly over half that number if Central Park was planted edge to edge.
So why are infographics so popular? if you google infographics as linkbait you find, unsurprisingly, infographics explaining their usefulness at drawing people to a website. Another notes that "A web user has the attention span of a hyperactive child chugging redbull", and that infographics are more compelling and sticky than words. Many, like the Greenwashed example above, are blatant attempts to get you to press on lame sites; others are straight marketing ploys, like the e-coupons one.
Most, like those from our friends at Wellhome, (see the related links in the sidebar to the left) are trying to convey complex information in an entertaining and informative manner. But even the best of them are impossible to check because of the lack of hyperlinks, Tim Berners-Lee's invention that is the core of the world wide web. Why would we produce stuff for the web that doesn't have its single most important defining feature?
I suspect that it would be pretty easy to figure out a way to embed links into an infographic; The New York Times does fabulous ones like this one embedding all kinds of information. If that is too expensive and difficult, It certainly is easy to attach a document with the text and real links. Having to do so would probably eliminate about half of the infographics in our inboxes. After all, when we write stories on TreeHugger we have to link to our sources; infographics should be held to the same standard.
What do you think?