The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … of the Infographic

Infographics are in right now. Our major Canadian news stations and papers – notably The Globe and Mail and CBC – use them to communicate information on a seemingly daily basis, bloggers and social media folk love them, and the business and professional world is increasingly using the infographic as a way to communicate to their employees and stakeholders. Some may say that this is a tool representative of our generation and culture, what with our need for information that is available instantaneously and understandable in minutes. Or a sign of our technological times – while in days past a graphical representation of information would have taken a painstakingly long period of time to create, we’re now able to use software and tools to create infographics quickly, accurately and easily.

Yes, some may say these things. But are they right? First, the idea of images being able to communicate complex or lengthy ideas has been around and appreciated for eons – as Ivan Turgenev wrote back in 1862, “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound”. Second, are infographics really that easy and accurate? For basic information – yes, I’m sure they are. However, for infographics seeking to explain the relationship between complex ideas or variables, I’m not so sure. While attempting to make this information clearer, infographics may have the opposite effect, making the connection between ideas or variables more difficult to grasp, or in some cases, leading to lost meaning.

The Common Good Forecaster

One example that both impresses me and leaves me slightly wary is The Common Good Forecaster. This interactive infographic, developed by the United Way and the American Human Development Project, allows users to graphically see how various economic and social conditions would change as educational outcomes change – for example, how increased high school or college completion rates can ‘forecast’ improved health outcomes (e.g. obesity or life expectancy rates), financial outcomes (e.g. poverty or unemployment rates), and community involvement outcomes (e.g. voting rates).

While the tool is neat and the results interesting, the methodological description of how this tool was developed calls the accuracy of the data into question. On a more philosophical note – can something as complex as the relationship between education and health, or education and community involvement, be captured in a series of graphs? And lastly on a decidedly political note – will those who hold the real power – policy makers – use tools such as these to make decisions regarding educational initiatives, or is the point to create awareness and advocacy for change at a community level? And if so – is such a technique effective, and will this tool galvanize those that need to be galvanized?

On a completely different note, I can’t think of infographics without remembering CBC’s coverage of the last federal election. While the graphical representation of voting results was helpful, the reliance on infographics and social media was at times annoying and distracting. It seemed at numerous points during the coverage that Peter Mansbridge was having difficulty reporting on the results while also keeping track of the various graphs and charts that were being thrown on numerous screens surrounding him – sometimes with the wrong information.

While the ability to communicate information in new ways is obviously a good thing, it seems to me that it’s absolutely pertinent to examine not just what is gained, but what might be lost as well.

Masthead photo courtesy of Steve Punter

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