The Insidious Infographic

Dashboard Spy Rant: Ok, I’m going to point out something here about the Emperor’s new clothes: the infographic may turn out to be the death of dashboards.

“What??” you may ask, “but Dashboard Spy, you LOVE infographics”.

Yes, I do. What’s not to like? Slick graphics, cool diagrams, pretty colors, bold text – all these elements make infographics fun to look at, easy to understand, – and above all, they make you feel smart and well informed.

Take a look at these gems:
infographics

But there’s something you need to realize. There’s been a disturbing trend among visualizations and infographics this past year. THEY HAVE BEEN DECLINING IN QUALITY.

I notice 2 distinct factors at play and they really alarm me.

1) Because of the popularity and adoption of infographics, they are being co-opted by the marketing world as promotional tools. Infographics are often passed around. They get linked to, tweeted about and “liked” on facebook. Every search engine optimization practitioner and marketer is commissioning infographics to be used as “linkbait”. The bottom line is that infographics are hot because of their marketing potential.

2) Everybody with a knocked off copy of photoshop and a halfway decent sense of design is now pumping them out. Strike that – even if you don’t have a decent design sense, you can produce infographics now because of the demand. Graphic artists with absolutely no understanding of information visualization best practices or any sense of whether the data is being represented accurately are out there slinging slick pie charts with gradients. This is eye candy in the extreme.

Now, let me back off being an alarmist for a minute. Yes, the information visualizations being produced at leaders such as the New York Times are as good as ever. And the visualizations being produced now with Flex technologies bring incredible interaction to business dashboards. I understand that the state of the art in business intelligence dashboards owes a lot to the information visualization crowd and their stunning infographics.

But, nevertheless, because the marketing crowd has caught on to the use of infographics as a promotional tool (and they have, believe me. I listened to a black hat seo discussion on the use of infographics as a buzz building technique and it scared me!), we have to be careful.

The graphic artist is being touted now as the key to information visualization. It’s hard for the public to tell a pretty graphic that is accurate from an information visualization point of view from a pretty graphic that is misleading.

And if you think that’s bad, here’s the insidious part. You know what it takes to put together a truly compelling dashboard application, right? You know, a properly designed one that accurately portrays actionable business intelligence in an easy to understand, at-a-glance manner. Not a trivial task right?

Well, how about taking a fraction of the budget, throw some data tables up and create a home page with an infographic on it. I can hire a second-rate graphics guy, tell him to make it shiny and feel like a New York Times infographic, but don’t worry about any real infoviz principles. Just make it look like the infographics that are so currently in vogue.

I’ll bet you that version of the app will impress the users a heck of a lot more.

Let’s be careful out there.

Let me know if you think I’m a nut.

Hubert Lee
The Dashboard Spy

PS. Here are some very good infographic examples. I’ll look for some bad ones.

http://www.deathandtaxesposter.com
http://dashboardexample.com/175-top-data-visualization-resources
http://www.infographicsshowcase.com

PPS. Here’s an example of something that is just plain cool. Not very meaningful maybe, but totally awesome. Even if you know it’s just plain graphic eye candy, you can’t help but be impressed. This can happen to you on your dashboard projects. Er, I mean infographics projects.

batmobile infographic

From: http://www.coolinfographics.com/blog/2011/1/10/the-visual-evolution-of-the-batmobile.html

5 Comments

  1. Comment by Chris Grant:

    Totally agree about declining quality! It’s embarrassing.

  2. Comment by Sabine:

    Hubert, you are spot on. Data visualization requires research, analysis and other skills apart from graphic design. Without a complete understanding of the information or data and the objective – what it is you are trying to say, you cannot thoroughly and cleverly depict that data in a coherent, clever and creative way.

  3. Comment by Craig:

    Please post a link (your site or otherwise) for the “infoviz principles” that you refer to.

  4. Comment by Stephen Few:

    Hubert — Is it your opinion that most infographics are less effective than most dashboards? I agree with you that many — perhaps most — infographics are poorly designed and therefore fail to adequately inform, but I’ve observed that this is just as true of most dashboards. The notion that “the infographic may turn out to be the death of dashboards” suggests a causal relationship that seems unlikely. It is probably more accurate to say that poor infographics and dashboards alike are both caused by the fact that those who create them have never developed the skills that are required to inform graphically. The principles and practices of effective data visualization are rooted in an understanding of human perception and cognition — an understanding that most infographic artists and most dashboard designers have never developed. Most of the dashboards that are featured on the Dashboard Spy exhibit this lack of understanding. Before we can bemoan the failures of infographics too severely, perhaps we should first put our own house in order.

  5. Comment by admin:

    Stephen – I agree with you. Most of the dashboard ARE poor. What I’m pointing out (in alarm), is that it’s even easier and cheaper and quicker to knock out crappy infographics. A graphic artist is WAY cheaper than any developer or anyone else on a business intelligence team.

    Hubert

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