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Your infographic isn't an infographic. It's just a crappy graphic. (portent.com)
175 points by portentint on May 30, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

Title makes it sound like he's going to delineate the difference between "infographic" and "non-infographic", but it seems to run into the "real Christians" problem where anything he doesn't like "isn't an infographic". Apparently it's categorically impossible for an infographic to be less than fantastic, which is an odd definition of infographic.

Let's not pretend there's more controversy here than there really is. If anything, the point he's making is too banal. Almost the whole of _The Visual Display of Quantitative Information_ argues against the style of visualization this post argues against.

Virtually all infographics are indeed terrible visualizations of information.

That may be true, but Portent is an SEO firm and Ian is addressing a certain type of braindead SEO who jumped on the infographics bandwagon as a link building strategy.

They tend to know not, nor care, a thing about visual design of quantitative information. They think they're executing a strategy because their fingers are moving on the keyboard.

Then they don't get results and wonder why. The point is to tell them they aren't even in the right ballpark.

> Virtually all infographics are indeed terrible visualizations of information.

I do not agree. I've seen quite a bunch that – although obviously not a definitive source of information – give a good sense of perspective. Here's one [0] that came back to mind.

[0] http://mozy.com/blog/misc/how-much-is-a-petabyte/

Really? Most of that chart is just big text. Big text is not an infographic. I would say the most interesting one I've come across recently is http://xkcd.com/radiation/.

Is that a particularly effective graphic? Look at how the green doses transition to the orange ones (with a legend "all green doses combined" corresponding to an irregular number of orange boxes), and then look at the transition from orange to yellow; are all the orange doses equivalent to 50sv, or are all the orange doses equivalent to one box?

I agree that the XKCD "radiation" chart is an instance where an XKCD-style comic does a better job of explaining something than an equivalent well-written paragraph. But I don't agree that it's a particularly great visualization.

I would definitely agree that it isn't the best graphic, but I think it does an admirable job of portraying the primary thing it was created to portray (I assume) -- the context of radiation dose levels. I can very quickly eyeball the order of magnitude difference between a plane flight and a chest X-ray, while I could also dial down to the more precise differences if necessary.

The "radiation doses combined" transition seemed fairly clear to me. In every case the collective doses are measured in the new SI-prefixed unit delineated by the scale on the left. If I were to criticize anything I would be a little more wary of the color choices and the box labeling. The = sign and parenthetic dose notation seems a little confused (the blue box dose size uses a different convention from the others).

While the chart could layout some things a little more clearly, I think that Minard's chart shows that one shouldn't reduce information content solely for the sake of simplicity.

I think the chart would do better if removed from the arbitrary constraint of XKCD's page framing; if, for instance, a suitably large canvas was used, so that the eyes could immediately grasp the comparatively minimal exposures from common radiation sources to (say) the gigantic exposures from Chernobyl.

It's clearly within Munroe's capability to make such a graphic; he did this one on a deadline. I'm not criticizing Munroe (though: not an XKCD fan), just making an objective assessment of the graphic.

And, like I said: here's a case where a graphic, even an imperfect one, probably communicates rich information more effectively than prose. Unlike the "relative sizes of data" infographic upthread.

Randall's come out with a number of these.

Scale of the Universe, Radiation, IPv4 space, lakes & oceans, gravity wells, and Money all come to mind.






(You can curse me later).

An infographic is not a chart. e.g [0] has a lot of text.

[0] http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0...

Notice how that graphic uses graphics primarily to illustrate, and often uses illustration in lieu of words; to fully communicate the same ideas in prose you might need many paragraphs. Notice how it uses color exclusively as a subtle callout. Notice how the color choice highlights effectively but doesn't draw a blinding neon sign.

By contrast, the infographic you like uses illustrations incorrectly; for instance, isn't it confusing the area and radius of circles? Notice how it uses multiple pictures each drawing a single comparison on a single axis. Think about how many words the same comparison takes in prose (not hard, because all those words are included in the infographic in gigantic type above the illustration, often in radioactive neon green).

--- Also: note that this [unfavorable] comparison is against a relatively weak example of explanatory illustration --- the best examples in _VDQA_ are way, way better than these NYT examples, which are a bit chartjunky themselves. If there's a good critique to be leveled at E.T., I think it may be that he tends to be overly favorable to friends, students, and, most importantly, people who share the same aesthetic sense that he does: simple line drawing style, low-saturation colors, arts & letters themes. Look at that "Game of Life" illustration, for instance; ouch.

Look at the "airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow" by, I believe, one of his students --- a truly excellent, effective example of an information graphic done in E.T.'s favored style [literally, with E.T.'s favorite palette]:


That is a truly wonderful infographic. I'd never seen it before. Thanks.

One of the most recurrent metrics in Tufte's books is "density". Another is "comparisons on multiple axes" (I'm going from memory, I think he had a more technical term). How do you think this particular graphic does?

Graphics like this seem more like posters promoting an idea than tools for understanding complex data.

Complex data relative to what? You and I can (quite) easily grasp how huge is a petabyte, an exabyte, a zettabyte even; yet someone not "in the field" will have a hard time grasping what represents such an amount of information.

Of course this one being ordered by Mozy should trigger some warnings about it being a covert ad, but it does not detract from the potential veracity of the data.

This one is admittedly quite simple, but should we discard all infographics on the merit they're not of Tufte level?

>You and I can (quite) easily grasp how huge is a petabyte, an exabyte, a zettabyte even

Can you really? I work with video every day. Terabytes are nothing when we're talking HD content and lots of it. It's still pretty hard for me to visualize, even sitting at a system with the details up in front of me, what exactly a petabyte is. Let alone hundreds of thousands of them.

It's like asking an average person to visualize a trillion dollars. There exists a point once a quantity becomes sufficiently large that you tend to stop consciously processing it.

-edit, realize this sounds really snarky, it's not. I am legitimately curious how you quantify that much stuff.

I've been working on problems at various scales from subatomic to galactic scale and about everything in between. At some point, when you're genuinely interested about what you do, you build mental bridges between domains and scales and values and units, you... connect some dots. You start understanding what a log/exp is, what that "shooting through the roof" profoundly means. By understanding I mean you start feeling it with your gut. So when someone talks about one Zm I could take it as a pure value, but I could try and get the feel of it. It's overwhelming, so much so that I can physically feel the cognitive weight of it on my mind. So when I make some conversion and find that 1Zm is about 100'000 light years, and I know (whatever the light-year value means, I take it as pure, transitional value to an item of knowledge) that the Milky Way is about that size in diameter, only then do I feel the absolutely immense size of our galaxy. I must insist that it's no more the vision of the galaxy that gives weight to a Zm to me, but the Zm that gives the incredible sense of dimension of that pack of matter.

Nobody is arguing that we should discard bad infographics.

That graphic isn't even internally consistent. I measure the 2000 "computer usage" circle at 56 pixels in diameter and the outer 2008 circle at 195 pixels. The text states usage in that time frame has increase 342%. Visually the change is 1,212%.

In text it states that Hitatchi came out with the first terabyte drive which holds 1000 GB. Later, in graphic form, it shows 1024 GB = 1 TB.

In the Internet Users by millions chart the author uses a bar graph (time is continuous, why use a bar graph) with no x-axis labels and then to express hard drive price over time we get a line chart (still no x-axis label). The missing labels are okay because there are callouts specifying the dates, but the change in graph type is weird.

I disagree. It fairly consistent. By your numbers, the computer usage in 2000 is 56 pixels in diameter while the diameter for the circle representing 2008 is 195 pixels. By area of the circle, The bigger cicle (half circle really, would that matter?) is 1212% larger. By diameter, the larger circle is 348% larger. That is a couple pixels (about 3 pixels) or percentage points off (about 5 percent). That is accurate enough to show scale on an infographic in my mind.

As for Hitatchi creating a 1TB drive that holds 1000GB, but later stating that 1TB is 1024 GB, isn't 1 terabyte technically 1000GB which the hard drive companies use, but also frequently used—incorrectly—to reference 1024 GiB or 1024^4 bytes? This other number, 1024GiB is actually a tebibyte, not a terrabyte. They are technically incorrect, but from the standpoint of the majority of the population, the difference between a terabyte and a teribyte is just small print on the back of box. The infographic could be clearer, but honestly, do you think this detail is worthwhile for trying to show the scale of what a petabyte is? That is what, a 5% difference in size? I think that is, when looking a petabyte. If I did my math correctly, there is 50GB of loss (or is that GiB?)

In the end, they are trying to show that a petabyte is a fuck-ton of data. More data than many people can wrap there mind around. They are trying to show scale. How you define the numbers are complicated because we have SI units for both binary and decimal which don't match up and IEC units for the binary side as well. The average consumer isn't going to know or care. They could care that a petabtye is HUGE. The infographic portrays this without trying to bog the consumer down in differences in technical jargon that most of use technical people know but don't bother using correctly ourselves most of the time.

Again, this probably isn't controversial: it's simply a mistake to make one-dimensional comparisons with a two-dimensional scale. Tufte called this specific example (abusing area as a one-dimensional scale) an examplar of the "lie factor" in statistical graphics.

He delineates it fine, I thought. The quality goes down as you get further along--Number 11 says nothing, for instance--but the 1-4 are perfectly valid.

Does your "infographic" add clarity? If no, it's not an infographic. Does your "infographic" actually use data? If no, it's not an infographic. Does your "infographic" communicate more compactly than a paragraph or a spreadsheet? If no, it's not an infographic. Does your "infographic" tell a story or make an argument? If no, it's not an infographic.

Basically, infographics are yet another one of those academic things that got subverted by marketers in service of the masses. Now that they have a different audience, it's a lot harder for them to hold onto their original identity of "a piece of tri-fold cardboard at the science fair".

I really wish he (Ian Lurie) spend more time giving examples of great information (/data) graphics and what strategies to take when designing such graphics. To me, this comes off as a mere complain.

Lurie links to Mark (Mapstone?) who, also, complains about infographics. I'd like to take a shot at how they could make better infographics. Especially a graphic by Mashable Infographics about the 1.8 zettabytes of data produced every year.

The "1.8 zettabyte"-graphic from Mashable shows a lot of (meaningless) comparison, but absolutely no causality. Imagine if they instead talked about all the different sources of information, adding up to the enormous quantity of 1.8 zettabytes. Like the amount of video uploaded to YouTube everyday, the number of Tweets and there size in gigabytes per day, the increasing number of cameras being bought, growth on Wikipedia and probably many more.

For actual depth and substance regarding information visualization, you should just read Tufte, since much of this article is obviously informed by it: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi

Tufte's site includes this analysis of a good example of an infographic:


+1 million. That book changed my life, at least as far as information presentation is concerned. It's that good. If you ever make a chart or a graph, you owe it to yourself and your viewers to read that book.

Was there a specific book you had in mind? There are 8 at the link.

"The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" is the one I had in mind. Sorry, I should've checked the link.

Of those, Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Beautiful Evidence are my favorites.

Accompany those with the classic How To Lie With Statistics.

Also check out "Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis". Another great one.

As a designer I'd like to thank you for this post. This recent fad of "infographics" (some text in rectangles + pie chart) is quite sad. These things are information graphics about as much as fake lens flares were graphic design in the 90s.

Side note: are you serious about people paying for this?

Well said.

I contribute to a site that does a lot of interactive visualizations and works with artists that do more static infographics.

Because we display them time to time we get massive amounts of email from companies that paid to have an infographic made (usual on a subject not related to their biz) and slap ads on the bottom. I've never posted one and can't for the life of me figure out why any legit business (maybe that's my answer) would do that.

The data part seems to be the biggest thing people fail to understand. If you don't have compelling data or the graphic doesn't lend itself to understanding the data... then what's it for?

can't for the life of me figure out why any legit business (maybe that's my answer) would do that

I think they're hoping it'll "go viral". And they pronounce that with the quotes.

I will say... I've had lots of success with some of the visualization projects I've worked on (TOOT TOOT!)... but none had ads and I had no service to sell... so that makes things a lot less complicated.

If you're going to use a flashy javascript popup mechanism to view image links, please make sure at the very least that people whose screens aren't as wide as the image can access the close button!

Maybe instead of bashing infographics designers would benefit from figuring out why they are so popular? This "Cult of Tufte" stuff is kind of grating. Minard's map showing Napoleon's march into Moscow is a great example. It is an elegant chart that shows 6 key bits of information (# of troops, location, direction, temp, time, attrition), but it's a bore to look at.

It might be the greatest piece of info design ever, but it will draw less attention than a lame "infographic".

I think "Infographics" have huge potential, just like blog slide shows do. Both are universally reviled by "serious" thinkers, but are incredibly popular. I see them revealing a need for more condensed, actionable information, not a scourge. There is signal in that noise.

Flashy > Informative?

I'm not sure I'd have used the term "a bore," but I think the parent poster's point is that the Napoleon graphic doesn't immediately draw you in. If you study it for a while, it manages to accumulate a great deal of information in a remarkably integrated way but it takes study to appreciate what is being communicated. While that graphic is rightfully famous, it wouldn't IMO work especially well in, say, a conference presentation setting or even a newspaper.

Why does it need to draw you in?

If you don't need the information that it conveys, there's no reason for you to study it. If you do want the information, then you'll take the time necessary to understand it.

To me, if your graphical elements are running the show in a conference presentation setting or in a newspaper, you're already doing something wrong. Those aren't the right media for infographics (well, newspapers would sometimes find them useful).

Don't conflate media unnecessarily. If you need something flashy, make something flashy. If you need something informative, make something informative. Don't repudiate something meant to be flashy for being uninformative, nor something meant to be informative for being insufficiently flashy.

It's not even a crappy graphic. It's just eyecandy for social news sites and blogs to generate traffic and backlinks.

My biggest beef with infographics is that they are almost always a static image. This is 2012. Why not make something interactive? It could help address several of the author's points as well.

My prediction is that interactive graphics will be the trend in coming years - the things you can do with d3.js, Protovis, and related JS libraries is way deeper than a simple static image. The New York Times already has some great interactive pieces, e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/13/business/stude...

I don't disagree but there's certainly more complexity with interactive. Takes longer to execute (sketch, design, develop, test). And then many designers don't know how to do interactive front-end code.

With HTML5, you could probably make an accessible infographic (that works correctly for screen-reader and text-browser users)

I don't think they care so much about communicating facts as much as they care about ROI from their SEO investment. If static images work at getting page views from gullible people, then why change?

Static images are easier to share.

Links are difficult to share?

Static images being easy to share does not mean links are difficult to share. It means static images are easier to share.

Are they? Save an image to a file, attach to an email. Cut and paste a link into an email or an IM. Or provide a link to a page with the image: same exact work as a link to a non-image. This is, at the very least, the same amount of work.

Images always works

Has the quality of links on HN declined the last months?

Yes. This is obviously link bait, SEO content.

I'm not sure that's fair, Ian Laurie has been a solid blogger for years and is often critical of current trends. He ventures into technical topics from time to time too.

He may not be your cup of tea but he's certainly not the cheap PR stunt kind of internet marketing guy (I'm not sure you're insinuating that, just wanted to let folks who are interested in web marketing topics that he's worth paying attention to IMO).

>is often critical of current trends

I'm seeing more and more of this kind of article on HN recently. Solid blogger or not, if I had a penny for every "$current_trend sucks" screed posted here and frontpaged, I'd be retiring by now.

Honestly, it gets old hearing people complain about everything under the sun after a while. (And I say this as someone who complains a hell of a lot on his own blog, but then again I've never been posted here..)

Did we really need a breathless blog article to tell us that some infographics suck? Stop the presses!

I'm seeing more and more of this kind of article on HN recently. Solid blogger or not, if I had a penny for every "$current_trend sucks" screed posted here and frontpaged, I'd be retiring by now.

Isn't the quoted statement from your comment a "$current_trend sucks" statement? I guess you see the need to decry some current trends, just as all of us do from time to time.

Heh. Kind of funny that I didn't see that.

I guess what I was getting at is that seeing the same thing over and over again tends to get old.

The wide proliferation of really terrible ones seems to tie into some murky SEO tactic of getting a designer to whip you up something 'viral', stick it on the www.totallylegitadultdiplomaswithfreeviagra.com root, and then have a cute little 'share this' link that gives you the url along with a blob of html stuffed with invisible SEOjunk keywords, and rely on people's laziness and stupidity to get the backlinks flowing.

I recall reading a good article on it a while back, but oddly enough, "SEO infographics" is now a sufficiently desirable niche that there are junk infographics just waiting to take your call.

I disagree. I now mentally associate the word "infographic" with "poorly-thought-out blog post that the author wrote in Photoshop in order to familiarize himself with all of its features." As for a graphic that conveys information, well, those don't exist anymore.

I agree completely but unfortunately I doubt people will do them right until they stop attracting eyeballs. To the well informed, bad info graphics are a plague on the web. To my sister's teenage friends and my mother's circle of friends they're "oh cool, I don't have to read!". Self respecting graphic designers won't create these awful "info graphics" but anyone who's looking to attract some eyeballs in the hopes of getting an ad or two clicked or a new rss subscriber will keep polluting the web with them until we stop looking.

    Self respecting graphic designers won't create these awful "info graphics"
Disagree! Kelli Anderson is a fantastic designer and makes all kinds of infographics (although I imagine they cost a lot more than $200): http://www.kellianderson.com/projects/infographics.html

Andersen is a great example, as is Feltron!

> I agree completely but unfortunately I doubt people will do them right until they stop attracting eyeballs.

The problem is you can't know if they're worth your time until you actually spend the time to look at them.

Why does the URL say "10 reasons..." but the article title says "11 reasons..."? Honestly, that bothers me enough to not even read the rest.

People rename articles, but URLs are not supposed to change, and should never break.

So the article was published before it was done? Clearly it was 10 when it got published... then it was increased to 11. I just think that if a person is going to publish something like this and expect people to listen, they should show that a certain amount of thought was put into it before releasing it into the wild. But I guess mine is an unpopular view.

It wasn't 10, honest. I just can't count. Which is why I use computers and stuff. They count gooder than me.

ya, they do count gooder... but they lack a sense of humor. ;)

Also, the 11th reason is "you're probably making the other 10 mistakes."

Shouldn't you be bothered more about your emphasis on trivialities over the substance (or OCD)?

What you call trivialities I call attention to detail. And your remark about OCD is offensive.

A bit ironic that I mis-counted in the URL, I know. Sorry about that.

>What you call trivialities I call attention to detail.

Yes, but at some point what each one calls something stops, and they have to face objective reality.

Now, if you were talking about bad syntax/grammar/spelling, a blinking grey font over a white background, or something like it, yes, we could count that as "attention to detail". But not reading an article because of a mismatch with the title and it's URL (which isn't even targeted at humans) is an attention to useless detail, i.e to a triviality. I don't think there are "ifs and buts" about it.

>And your remark about OCD is offensive.

I'm sorry for that. But it could also be true. And those kinds of things are a sure-fire sign.

In which case, would it be less offensive (because it would then be just an observation) or more (because it would be tactless to point it out)?

Then again, I was trying to defend the article (which I found quite good) from a non warranted attacked over something less than a typo.

(Not that it's a big deal, I have some myself).

You kind of lost me when you started telling me that I should consider useless the same things you consider useless. I'm sorry I openly questioned the mismatch. I'm just glad that the OP gave an actual answer... rather than just ridicule me.

>You kind of lost me when you started telling me that I should consider useless the same things you consider useless.

Well, other people sometimes are in the right on telling you to consider useless what they consider useless. For example, if someone tells you to consider "creationism" useless, they would be right. It's not like everything is a matter of personal choice --or that they just say it to impose their arbitrary opinion.

Same here, it's not like anybody else would have found the "url/title mismatch as a reason NOT to read an article" reasonable.

(We've ventured too far off into off-topic land, but what the hell)

>I'm just glad that the OP gave an actual answer... rather than just ridicule me.

And doesn't he being that kind make you regret suggesting people drop his article for a trivial typo?

> And doesn't he being that kind make you regret suggesting people drop his article for a trivial typo?

If I had actually suggested that people not read the article then, yes, I would regret that. Fortunately, I did not do that. Instead I said why I did not read the article. Perhaps you find that distinction trivial. That is fine. But I do not.

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