Infovis: Worth 1,000 words (and then some)
If your job requires detailed communication with others — and whose doesn’t, ultimately? — it’s time for you to move beyond mere words into the realm of information visualization. In the age of Big Data, infovis can be one of a communicator’s most valuable tools.
Information visualization (infovis) helps you show what data means — telling stories, discussing patterns, driving home points. Because infovis makes it easier for readers to absorb and understand information, it can help you convey your message. To illustrate, we've collected some great infovis examples to inspire you (and a few cautionary items, too). Happily, everyone has access to simple, serviceable visualization software now, either on their computer (Excel or OpenOffice) on the Web (Google Spreadsheets) – so you can start making your own infovis at any time.
The infovis back-story
Never heard of infovis? Also known as data visualization, it could be described as “Xtreme graphing”: Large and intricate datasets get digested and depicted visually, often to impressive effect.
Europeans in particular have embraced this mode of communication in the last six or seven years. (Click over to Flowing Data, Visual Complexity and Information Aesthetics, and be amazed at the work of talented designers from around the world.) And thanks to inclusion in magazines such as Fast Company and Good, information visualization is gaining a foothold in the U.S. Even the Obama administration has used it to express complicated data like the particulars of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Is infovis a help, or just hype?
It depends. As with every other form of communication, the quality of the end product is directly proportional to the amount of thought and care you put into it. It's far too easy to do infovis badly, as we've all seen online. [Check out this post on bad infovis/infographics from the MTV Clutch blog] Indeed, now that writers, marketers and advertisers have discovered how "sticky" and broadly appealing such presentations can be, websites and blogs are awash in infographics.*
As innovator/maven Ben Shneiderman said, "The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures." And some infographics are truly outstanding, such as Russell Munroe's Radiation Dose Chart, one of several he's created for the comics site xkcd.com.
When infographics attack
Sadly, too many infographics exemplify what Professor Robert Kosara of UNC-Charlotte calls the “visualization cargo cult”: the belief that adding colorful charts will bestow Significance (or even Meaning) on the data.
A related problem is some creators' inclination to needlessly illustrate the words and dub the result an infographic. In my experience, the busier the infographic, the higher the chance that the data is thin or rickety. Here's an unfortunate example.
- To the extent possible, keep words subordinate to the image(s), which themselves should synthesize information. The best infovis involves lots and lots of data, presented in context but with a certain degree of abstraction. The objective of communication -- especially marketing -- is to draw readers in and give them something they will think about for a little while. The abstraction sparks the thinking.
- Use charts and graphics that get readers' attention and represent a much lower cognitive load than verbal versions. This makes it easier for the reader to absorb and understand the information, enabling richer communication. Result: "stickyness."
- Make it fairly simple in shape and color. Of the examples below, only Baby Name Voyager is interactive. This is, in my view, an aesthetic that works well for communication because the viewer can concentrate on the meaning of the data rather than the intricacies of the design.
Make your own data visualizations
You may not believe it, but anyone has the capacity to create powerful, eloquent data visualizations. The most important ingredients -- thought and care -- exist independent of any specialized computer skills. Users of Excel or Google Spreadsheets have easy access to that software's charting functionality, including chart wizards to help you put the right data in its proper place.
What's more, an ever-increasing array of online tools and tutorials enables even novices to take a crack at making visualizations — even interactive ones. Here are three of the best known:
AS the galleries at these sites illustrate, effective visualizations Can add tremendous communicative value to a presentation or a publication.
Give it a try and see for yourself!
What success looks like
Here are some visualizations that succeed immediately:
- Florence Nightingale's casualties chart
- World Health Chart 2001
- The New York Times "Driving Shifts Into Reverse"
- Baby Name Voyager (interactive)
* Infographics are not quite the same thing as information visualizations. The former tend to be mostly decorative and not very analytical, while the latter are usually more abstract and less kitschy.