Making Great Infographics: The Data Vs Design Debate

A few months ago I attended a Guardian Master Class on Data Visualisation hosted by Tobias Sturt, Head of creative at Guardian Digital Agency and Adam Frost, Data Visualisation Manager at Guardian Digital Agency. Both were incredibly friendly, down-to-earth and made the class very enjoyable. I highly recommend checking them (and their work) out.

Data visualisation mainly revolves around the creation and use of infographics, they began the class by explaining exactly what the purpose of an infographic is, which is simply to tell a story.

The key to the story for an infographic is selection and emphasis, and is a similar process to that of a writer. For example, a writer will select the story that piques their interest and then they structure the story in order to emphasise a certain character, scene and theme so that the reader reaches the correct conclusion. With regards to infographics and creating charts the selection process starts with choosing which data sets to use and the emphasis (which will result from the designer’s work) will be which data set is the most important and what aspects are most relevant to the goal of the infographic.

Above all clarification is most important element to the story and this applies to both the writer and the designer. However with regards to an infographic, the data needs to be displayed in such a way so that the consumer can understand the story from the visuals, as if there is any confusion message becomes lost; rendering the data useless.

From a Content Strategist’s point of view this point struck a chord with me, after all if content that is produced for a client loses sight of its intention, audience or integrity (vital to the whole “story”) it is destined to fail.

Sturt and Frost then moved onto a very interesting debate between two different designers on the approach to data visualisation. This was one of the many aspects of the course that I was fascinated with and became the inspiration for this post. The two designers they mention have very different approaches on how to create data visualisation, the first being Edward Tufte.Tufte

Credit: Flickr

Tufte is an American statistician and Professor Emeritus at Yale University. He is widely known for his writing on information design and is considered to be a pioneer in the field of data visualisation. He has also authored various books on the matter of data visualisation. As a leading theorist on the subject, Tufte believes that data should never be cheated. He has often remarked that if the audience notices the chart first and not the data then you have already failed.

What many believe this to mean is that the design of data visualisation should often be minimal, and he believes you should present all the data to show the top level trends. In many instances he believes that extravagant design often cheats the data, thereby risking the integrity of the work and the truth of the data. It is clear that Tufte’s loyalty lies with the data. So it makes sense that his core followers would also be data driven such as academics and statisticians. However, I would argue the main issue with this is that not everyone knows the basics of statistics or how to read a detailed graph, therefore the story of the data can be lost for some audiences.

There is that classic notion that we have mere seconds to retain a consumer’s attention. In fact one study in the US says that in 2013 the average attention span was only 8 seconds which is a 4 second decrease from 2000, and 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish.

Content created with this approach could risk alienating an audience if it were created for the sole purpose of showing just data that related to a specific industry (such as technical or B2B, as opposed to B2C) it has the potential to perform well, as the consumer already has an invested interest in the content.

You can view some of Tufte’s work on his website.

The other designer Sturt and Frost used to compare different styles is the polar opposite to Tufte. Those who are familiar with the site Information is Beautiful will recognise the name; David McCandless.

David McCandless

Credit: Flickr

He is a British data-journalist and information designer from London, the founder of the visual blog mentioned above, and the author of the book Information is Beautiful. Since its publication McCandless’ work has been featured in The Guardian, Wired and showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as Tate Britain.

I would have to say that personally I think McCandless’ take on infographics has been very influential on the web in the past few years, especially with the surge in the popularity of infographics.

Where Tufte’s infographics focus mainly on the data McCandless focuses more on delivering the message via a visual representation, rather than relying on the data to drive home the key point. McCandless is known to take a different approach with the data, he will be selective in order to provide a particular story, even if it means ignoring all other data sets, which is considered sacrilege to Tufte, he will then tweak the visuals in order to make the story clearer to the audience.

Also, unlike Tufte, McCandless believes that design should be used to emphasise the story, hence tweaking the visuals, as opposed to keeping design to a minimum (as Tufte does), which makes it clear that McCandless’ first loyalty is to the audience, not the data.

I believe that this is what makes McCandless more loved by journalists and graphic designers and, as you can see from his website, the work he produces is beautiful, pleasing to the eye and above all else striking. Straight away you understand the goal of the infographic and just by adding a visual like this, it will compliment a story and help drive home the message. Or in a content marketing sense, help increase share-appeal. I decided to ask two of our industries’ most experienced and respected infographic designers for their opinions on this debate; namely Danny Ashton of Neomam and Shelli Walsh of shellshockuk.

Both of their works tend towards the academic and they're able to work with scientific, economic or social data sets.

According to AshtonBoth Edward Tufte and David McCandless are unquestioned masters of their field. As you note, Tufte for his emphasis on very clear, minimalist, presentation of data whilst McCandless is noted for his more illustrative and interpretive approach. Both of their works tend towards the academic and they're able to work with scientific, economic or social data sets. They have the advantage that they tend to be able to control the narrative which the wish to represent. 

For me, as someone who has to produce editorial infographics for people other than myself, an invaluable guide has been Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling, co-authored by Jason Lankow, Josh Ritchie and Ross Crooks (founders of Column 5).

In this book this issue, illustration vs data / McCandless vs Tufte is discussed. They cite a 2010 study by the University of Saskatchewan which looked at the effect of visual embellishment on chart comprehension. Interestingly they found that whilst embellishment did decrease the clarity of the information it did increase a reader’s ability to retain it.” 

The debate of truth of data versus creativity/visual has a long history and is not just confined to infographics and design.

Walsh feels that a designer has great responsibility towards data and that “The debate of truth of data versus creativity/visual has a long history and is not just confined to infographics and design. Being true to factual information has always been subject to the artist or writers interpretation. It is a well-known fact that telling the stories of war is always done by the victor; therefore, we never get a true representation of what really happened.

Within online marketing we have so many 'pop' infographics made for pure visual enjoyment and a graphic about the history of cats on TV is not going to be held to the same data scrutiny as a graphic that represents national military spends. But, does that make it any less important that facts can be sacrificed for the visual?

An information designer actually holds a great responsibility as they have real influence on how that data is perceived. Hierarchy of typography and text will place more emphasis on certain elements whilst others can be played down by reducing in size or by making skewed visual comparisons. It is essential the designer remains true to the information. 

Like the classic Bauhaus phrase: 'Form follows function' I think we could say that - 'Visual follows data'.

When it comes to information I believe that the truth is of the utmost importance and should be worked with integrity and responsibility. My opinion would be that information design should always remain true to the data and that visual comes secondary to that. Like the classic Bauhaus phrase: 'Form follows function' I think we could say that - 'Visual follows data'.

From these two opinions I think that is clear that the situation and the data will shape your design. You must always take into consideration whom your audience is, for instance if they would be enthralled by lots of data or if they would rather have something visually appealing that they can consume in a matter of seconds. Finally, you cannot forget the goal and message of what you are producing, if either too many visuals or too much data detract from it then the content will fail as a whole. 

Aug 15 2014
Kat McCarthy
Kat McCarthy

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