13 October 2014

Infographics - good and bad

This week in my MEd, we are exploring the heady world of infographics with the objective of learning how visual representations of data can enhance and distort data. The aim is for us to think carefully about the use of graphics in our teaching in order that we use visuals to effectively deliver information rather than distort it and confuse our learners.

After reading three articles by Edward Tufte, I summarised some basic principles to form the basis of my explorations and use them to evaluate the infographics I found.

According to Tufte (1983), graphical excellence happens when graphics:
  • show data
  • make viewers think about content not presentation/design
  • avoid the distortion of data
  • present many numbers in a small space
  • make large data sets coherent
  • encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
  • reveal data on different levels - from broad to fine
  • have a clear purpose: descriptive/explorative/decorative/tabulative
  • be closely correlated with statistical and verbal descriptions of data set
He also states that “words and pictures belong together” (Tufte, 1990) and developed six principles of graphical integrity (1983):
  • the representation of numbers as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented
  • clear, detailed and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data
  • show data variation, not design variation
  • in time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units of monetary measurement are nearly always better than nominal units
  • the number of information-carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data
  • graphics must not quote data out of context
Using these principles and guidelines, I searched for two good and two bad examples of infographics.

This first infographic, “How Baby Boomers Describe Themselves” immediately caught my eye because, at first, it appears simple and adheres to Tufte’s principles that “clear, detailed and thorough labeling should be used” and that the designer should “Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself” (Graphical Integrity, 1983). However, within a short space of time one realises that this designer has not in fact used his labeling to “defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity” or indeed “avoid distortion of data” as the baby boomer adds up to 243%! I do not think either that this graphical representation has a “clear purpose” (Graphical Excellence, 1983) and there is ambiguity in the presentation of the data - some have explanations, others don’t.

I love this Pulp Fiction infographic. It reminds me of the story I heard about a projectionist who re-edited the original film when it arrived to be screened at the cinema because they thought it had got messed up! I am not sure if that is a true story or not but Pulp Fiction was the first film I recall being told in a non-linear way. I love how the space-time sequence of the original has been reduced to a linear, chronological pattern - which of course all non-linear narratives can.


I like the simplicity of presentation of the complex task and believe this to be successful infographic according to Tufte who suggests that graphical excellence makes make “large data sets coherent” (Graphical Excellence, 1983). It has a “clear purpose” and whilst it is well presented, certainly makes the viewer think about the content not presentation or design (Graphical Excellence, 1983).

Equally, Smith has used “detailed and thorough labeling” - speech bubbles show important and well-known quotes, colours depict different character’s paths, he has labelled “important events in the data” with simple graphics to illustrate them because “words and pictures beling together” (Tufte, 1990); Smith also has a legend, providing clear and simple “explanations of the data on the graphic itself”.

This next graphic is interesting and creative in its presentation of data and appears on a page called Infographics vs. Infocrapics: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (SEO.com).

It states that many bad graphics are simply caused by the fact that designers try “to create an infographic without any information” or have designs that are “entirely divorced from the data they were presenting” - citing this as an example of one that is “designed around the data” and linked creatively to the data it is presenting (Graphical Integrity, 1983). This fits with Tufte’s principles that “the representation of numbers as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented” and that the graphic be “closely correlated with statistical and verbal descriptions of data set” (Graphical Excellence, 1983).

Compare this then, using the same principles, to the following graphic, which appears on the Terrible Infographics Tumblr. The site claims that this graphic appeared in Newsweek with the caption “The majority believe Japan is an innovative country”. Surely, this is a perfect example of how not to follow Tufte’s principle that “graphics must not quote data out of context” (Graphical Integrity, 1983).
Finally, a bonus graphic - simply because it is incredible. From Information is Beautiful, an interactive graphic, created for the BBC to show ‘Flight Risk - Every Major Commercial Plane Crash of the Last 20 Years’, this graphic “shows data” and “presents many numbers in a small space” making “large data sets coherent”(Tufte, Graphical Excellence, 1993). Whilst it displays an incredible amount of information about causes of plane crashes since 1993 in a way that can be filtered by the user, there is no actual timeline, which I think might have been useful. However, “clear, detailed and thorough labeling... defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity” create an amazingly data-dense graphic that is easy to read and decipher.

How Baby Boomers Describe Themselves. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2014.

Smith, N. (2012, July 1). Pulp Fiction Infographic. Retrieved October 13, 2014.

Infographics vs. Infocrapics: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly - SEO.com. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014.

Terrible infographics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014.

Flight Risk - Every Major Commercial Plane Crash of the Last 20 Years - Information Is Beautiful. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014.

Flight Risk Exploring fatal commercial passenger plane incidents since 1993. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc.com/future/bespoke/20140724-flight-risk/

Tufte, E. (1983). Graphical Excellence. In The Visual Display of Quatitative Information, (pp. 13-15). cheshire Connecticut: Graphic Press.

Tufte, E. (1990). Narratives of Space and Time. In Envisioning Information, (pp. 96-119). Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press.

Tufte, E. (1983). Graphical Integrity. In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, (pp. 53-77). Chesire, Connecticut: Graphic Press.