Friday, June 25, 2010

Infographics should portray information

I was listening to Radio 4 today and my ears pricked up when I heard they were discussing information design. the programme, More or Less, asked the audience the previous week some questions so that infographic designer David Mcandless could take the data and work on it.

The results are here:

Now I don't deny that what he has done is aesthetically pleasing as I, like him, find data representation or 'information' in its graphic form very interesting. What I find with much of what Mcandless showcases on his blog is that the designers have made the graphics beautiful but have lost some of the impact of the data. Information can be beautiful but I think these designers sometimes work hard to make (or even force) the graphics to be beautiful in a whole different dimension.

Take, for example, the main graphic (What are you doing while listening to More or Less). this graphic seems simple but I find it difficult to pick out more than one or two levels of data. For example I can see where the largest and second largest chunks of activity are but what about fourth, fifth? The 'intensity' label adds more confusion as our eye is drawn to the darker colour and gives it more importance over the others but at the same time biases our analysis. Lying down and handicrafts are the more or less the same size but does handicrafts seem bigger because of the higher contrast?

The merits of this sort of graphic are obvious: a very good snapshot of what people are doing but really I only extract the top four or five and then again with no certainty.

Information design is very important because if style takes precedence over function (that is to say delivering the information to the user in an easily understandable way) then it might as well be a painting of my cat (How many caffe lattes a day does my cat drink? Where does she sit during the day? How little does she care of my existence?).

I'd like to end on a well known and pioneering piece of infographics, Charles Minard's graphic showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow.

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