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Do Readers Give Infographics a Free Pass?

Why we need to learn to scrutinize them like any other journalism

Multi-Touch paintings by Evan Roth, Best American Infographics 2013

We live in a datified world, and artists and journalists are coming up with more and more creative ways to visualize it. Over the past few years, infographics have become so prevalent that they have become a medium unto themselves. This year, Houghton Mifflin made an addition to its "Best American" series with the publication of The Best American Infographics 2013edited by Gareth Cook. With the help of a brain trust of visualization experts, Cook hand-picked the year's best infographics—the ones that make the viewer think, smile, laugh, and maybe pause with wonder or consternation. In an interview with Cook about the new collection, he explained what makes a good infographic (and why some are so bad), why we find ourselves again in the midst of an information arms race, and why Napoleon deserves some credit for the development of the medium. 

Linda Kinstler: When did you start to think of infographics as a medium unto themselves?

Gareth Cook: They very quickly have become a very important new medium, and this series is a recognition of the fact that they’ve become influential, and that they shape how people think, and that they’re a mode of communication just like writing. This is a recognition of their power and a recognition of the best work. But the collection is meant to get people to think about them as a new medium with it’s own rules and its own power to shape how we think.

Infographics are actually very old, but they’ve just sort of in the last few years exploded, and we see them everywhere now. What has happened is, critical judgment is lagging behind how much people are seeing infographics. What I mean by that is, when people read a story or they read text, they know they should be critical about it, they should not assume that everything in there is correct, they should know that the writer is going to be picking and choosing details to make the point they’re trying to make. That’s something that we all are very familiar with.

I think we need to bring the same critical skills to infographics. That’s partly what I’m hoping this collection will do. So that when people see an infographic, they won’t just say to themselves, ‘Oh, this must be true, because they’re showing all this data’ instead, they will ask the same critical questions that you would of any other medium.

"The Four Kinds of Dog," by John Tomanio for National Geographic. Excerpted from Best American Infographics 2013. (Click to enlarge)

LK: You introduce the collection with a discussion of the origins of “information graphics” and mention that cartography is really the beginning of the art of infographics. Can you elaborate on that?

GC: At a really fundamental level, what infographics are doing are tapping into the brain’s ability to make very quick sense of the visual. We have for a variety of reasons this very strong ability to quickly make sense of a visual scene. So that is something that map makers figured out, that you could represent the world around you in a visual form, and that that’s a way of sort of making sense of the whole landscape around you, of understanding how it works, what is close to what else, what’s important, what’s not important. So I think that that’s sort of the first application of this idea.

Eventually, what happened is people realized that you could use that same idea but in a more abstract way. In other words, you could make maps, but the maps didn’t necessarily have to represent geographic space, they could represent economic space or pop cultural space. When that happened, it was this thing that really took off because it allowed us to make sense of lots of different realms of experience, and to make sense of it quickly. That’s why I sort of see infographics as an outgrowth of mapmaking. It’s sort of abstracting the idea of mapmaking—you’re making maps, but not necessarily of geographic space.

LK: You write that we’re in a golden age of infographics—why do you say that? What distinguishes this moment in time from previous eras?

GC: There are so much more data out there now. There are so many more ways of creating data about the world - there are satellites, there’s Twitter, you don’t need the whole litany from me. But there’s a lot of different sources of information.

What this does is this creates this strong need to make sense of the information. It’s very easy for a person to be overwhelmed. We’re very hungry for ways of making sense of all of this information out there. So I would say there’s an information arms race, and what I mean by that, is that on the one hand there’s technologies out there that create information in vast amounts. But as that’s happening, on the other side, there are people trying to figure out ways of taming this information, of making sense of it.

This sort of push-pull, this sort of arms race if you will, is something that actually goes back a long time. If you look back to when the printing press was invented, all of a sudden people were able to make books in vast quantities, and their price came down. Anyone could write a book about anything, and there was this panic as people realized that it would be impossible to read all the books. So people invented ways of making sense of that, and one of the big inventions that we take for granted is a thing called the index. The same thing happened with encyclopedias. Someone invented the idea of encyclopedias, when you could just sort of summarize the key information that you needed without having to go to the primary sources. That’s sort of this arms race that’s always been there, because as people feel overwhelmed and feel a need to make sense of it, they invent things that allow them to do that. Along comes this thing called the World Wide Web, and there are all these great sites out there, how are we going to find what we need? And someone invents Google.

So, I think what we’re seeing is that infographics are a powerful tool for making sense of data, so they’ve exploded. They’re being expanded, they’re being used in new and creative ways. That’s why we’re in a golden age of infographics, and why it’s a part of this historical arms race.

Another point I would make, is that we’re in a golden age of good infographics, but we’re also in a golden age of bad infographics. What I mean by that, is anyone can make an infographic now, so there are people who don’t really know what they’re doing, but they have the power, the ability to make infographics. Because you no longer need access to specialized equipment - anyone with a computer can do this, anyone with a computer connected to the Internet can publish it. So while we are seeing all this incredible innovation, and all these great examples of infographics, we’re also seeing garbage in vast quantities.

It’s somewhat analogous to what has happened with blogs, where anyone can do it, and what that’s meant, is that there are people who otherwise would not have been a writer, and whose writing other people would not have read, but who are really talented at it and so they are able to get a large audience and share their thoughts and insights with a large number of people. But there are also people, who really shouldn’t be writing. I mean it’s fine for them to write, they’re not hurting anyone, but what they write is not really of great public use, let’s put it that way.

Gun ownership rates in the United States, by Max Fisher. Excerpted from Best American Infographics 2013. (Click to enlarge)

LK: How do you regard services like, which allow anyone to make infographics quickly and cheaply? Do you flinch when you see a particularly horrible infographic?

GC: I’ll tell you one thing that makes me flinch. I don’t know why people do this, but there’s this style of infographic, that’s really long, like a long column. Typically what it is, is someone that just writes text, and then does illustrations with them, or maybe there’s a pie chart.  But it’s hardly an infographic. In other words, infographics have the ability to do things that text cannot. And so, when you’re deciding whether to write a story or make an infographic, you want to think about what is it you’re really trying to achieve, and what are these two different media good at, and then you decide what to do. It doesn’t make sense to have an infographic that is basically illustrated text. That’s just not accomplishing anything.

That said, there are examples of infographics in this book that were made by people who are not highly trained makers of infographics. There are examples in this book that some people would say aren’t infographics. I tried to be very inclusive, and I tried to give a sense for sort of the rich diversity of work that people are doing. I don’t think the collection is snobby, I certainly tried to make it not snobby. I tried to pick things that I thought were effective at doing something. A bad infographic to me is just something that’s not artistically effective, tt’s not achieving what it means to achieve.

LK: What infographics created by non-specialists would you point to?

GC: For example, there’s one infographic in here which is about gun deaths. Basically it’s a bar chart, that infographic to me was very effective because it was clear and made its point. It clearly achieved what it wanted to, and the starkness of it I think made it more effective. I saw a lot of different gun violence infographics, but I really liked this one, because it was so stark and so effective. One of the things that makes an effective story, whether its a visual story or a written story, is figuring out what to leave out, and he left out a lot of things that needed to be left out, and just made this one point. It also was part of the story of that year.

There are other things in here that you can sort of ask yourself, ‘Is it really an infographic?’ So for example, there’s a flowchart, “Is Life Good?” That’s not something the New York Times would run. It’s not something Edward Tufte would be approving of, I imagine. But it makes me smile.

"How to Be Happy," by Gustavo Vieira Dias. Excerpted from Best American Infographics 2013. 

LK: The Multi-Touch paintings by Evan Roth would also seem to fit in that category.

GC: I kind of included it there as a question I’m posing. I feel like its an interesting question to ask. I don’t think when he was working on it, I don’t think he was thinking of it as an infographic. To me, it’s a visual display of data, and to me what makes it so interesting is that the data is swipes, and it’s kind of weird to think of that as data. But that very fact is what’s so interesting to me, because we live in a time when swipes are data. That’s what iPhones have done, they’ve turned hand gestures into data. To me, this is a piece that says your hand gestures are data, and look at these things that you now just completely take for granted, but ten years ago, we didn’t do that. That’s what I find powerful about it and interesting about it.

"User Name and Password" multi-touch painting by Evan Roth excerpted from Best American Infographics 2013. 

LK: You end the book with a section on interactive infographicswhat distinguishes that category from static infographics? Do you think infographics will become increasingly interactive?

GC: I do think that infographics are becoming more interactive, and I think it’s just a natural result of the fact that we spend more time consuming digital media. I think that what makes them special and unique is these are infographics that need the tool of interactivity, that couldn’t function without the tool of interactivity. What makes a good infographic is when the story takes advantage of the tools that you have. So for interactive infographics, the good ones are ones that take advantage of those tools, and the bad ones are ones that didn’t need to be interactive and that don’t work well.

You sort of see it go both ways. Clearly, there are things that have to be interactive, and what makes them so great is the fact that they’re interactive—either you need to see them in motion for it to work, or you need to be able to explore them. But it’s also the case that you see an infographic in print, and then you go to the website and see the interactive version, and it just doesn’t work as well. Print and digital have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I think it’s a mistake to think that a digital infographic is always going to be better than the print. The same way that it’s a mistake to think that an infographic that is going to be better than a story - each medium has its own rules and its own abilities.

LK: Among the infographics in the collection, do you have any favorites?

GC: So you’re going to make me choose among my children. Let me mention a few that I really like. Among the interactive ones, I thought that the wind map was really beautiful. It’s actually an unusual one in that it works very well interactive and also works very well in print. Some of the others that just really stuck with me, are the “Which Birth Dates Are Most Common?” I like it for its simplicity, I like it because you see this dark band in the fall and you ask yourself, well, why are so many babies being born then, and then you realize that nine months before, it’s the coldest winter months… and you look more closely and you see there are holidays there. So it’s immediately interesting, but you can also sort of go deeper into it and explore.

"WInd Map," by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. Excerpted from Best American Infographics 2013. (Click for the full interactive version)

Another one that I liked is feelings that can’t be expressed in English. It’s just kind of mind-bending and fascinating to think about that. “The Four Kinds of Dog,” is also really neat. I could basically go through and tell you why I like all of these. Let me mention one other - the “Paths Through New York City”—it looks like this circulatory system, it’s just beautiful, but it also says something about the times we’re living in.

LK: You call the infographic of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow "the finest ever rendered." What makes it so remarkable?

Charles Joseph Minard's infographic published by Edward Tufte on Visually(Click to enlarge)

GC: What’s so interesting about that, is that it was very innovative, in that he found ways to display a lot of different information, all in print. So it has multiple layers to it. You can see the size of the army, you can see the dropping temperature. he was able to display a lot of variables all at once. That’s an idea that had to be invented, someone had to come up with doing that.

Someone had to invent, for example, the pie chart; his name was William Playfair. Before William Playfair there was no pie chart.  Even more amazing, he also invented the line graph. We completely take for granted that there are all these visual ways of displaying information, but these were invented by people—these were real intellectual leaps, they are real contributions that we are still benefiting from.

LK: The majority of the infographics in the collections are from media organizations. Do you think there’s more room for individualized infographics, crafted by individuals rather than media outlets?

GC: Part of what’s interesting about this, is that there are all these powerful tools out there that are available to just about anyone. That’s part of what makes this such a rich and exciting field, is that anyone can do it, and that if you’re good, and if people like what you’re doing, you can share it with just about anyone. One example of that is the infographic of the death toll in Breaking Bad—how every single person in Breaking Bad died. I thought that was really interesting.

Another really interesting example is this piece "Ten Artists, Ten Years," that looks at the different color palettes that different impressionist artists used.

His interest is not infographics, his interest is color. He wanted to find a way of representing what colors different artists were using, so he figured out the five colors that each artist used in one year. That’s not something that a professional designer would necessarily come up with, it’s just a product of this guys’ personal interest.

LK:  Do you see infographics becoming more prevalent outside of the media in general?

GC: Well, I feel like I see them everywhere - I mean, there was a show at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago—it was a show of visualizations as art. I think they’re everywhere. Just about any American would be very hard pressed to go a day without seeing any kind of infographic. Maybe if you’re hiking the Appalachain trail and don’t look at the tent instructions.

Images excerpted from The Best American Infographics 2013, edited by Gareth Cook, Copyright © 2013 by Gareth Cook. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Linda Kinstler is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter at @lindakinstler