Infographics: the outer limits?

Infographics can be beau­ti­ful, inform­at­ive, fascin­at­ing, genu­inely enter­tain­ing and educa­tional. On a personal level, I’m a big fan. My own over­whelm­ing need to under­stand things to the best of my abil­ity has been nicely enhanced by this recent trend.

Infographics come in a few flavours (chocol­ate, straw­berry and banana). There are straight-up graph types, area types, and in the grand tradi­tion of design every­where, misc. other.

My concern about infograph­ics in general is that how under­stand­able and access­ible they are (mainly) is detri­ment­ally affected by two things:

  1. How much the viewer knows about read­ing graphs
  2. The brain’s capab­il­it­ies for compar­ing sizes and areas

Most infograph­ics are graphs. Most of them are, in fact, bar graphs (see below). Sometimes they’re pretty well disguised. You might get some blocks arranged in a row or a square. You might be given ten little picto­grams of a man. Some are more blatant than others.

Definitely a bar graph.

But what if you can’t read a bar chart? As far as I can see, there haven’t been any real stud­ies done on graph liter­acy — and it’s impossible to Google due to all those graphs of liter­acy around — but if you equate it with maths liter­acy, some­thing like 22% — nearly a quarter — of 16–19 year olds left school, last year, func­tion­ally innu­mer­ate in anything but the most basic arithmetic.

You’ll have to do your own extra­pol­a­tion to apply that to the rest of the popu­la­tion, and no doubt for most people, their grasp of maths (and graphs) improves with age, but even still — if that many people simply aren’t at the math­em­at­ical stage that they can read graphs, then infograph­ics poten­tially have only limited usefulness.

Take for example how infograph­ics are used in news­pa­pers. Could these numer­acy require­ments be one of the reas­ons tabloid news­pa­pers haven’t taken them up whole­sale, while broad­sheets are posit­ively dizzy with excite­ment about them?

Now there are several infographic models that are extremely popu­lar right now — and one of them is this idea of a set of squares, or circles, or whatever, with their size repres­ent­ing a differ­ent value, right? Us humans are masters (and mistresses) of pattern recog­ni­tion. We can group objects by shape, colour, angle, prox­im­ity… but can we really compare size and areas effectively?

Take circles, for example. They’re easy to group into pretty patterns, but there’s a funda­mental prob­lem with inter­pret­ing circu­lar infograph­ics (among others). Now, design­ers have been told that they should use the area of the circle — which is gener­ally conveni­ent for them, as you end up with smal­ler circles which are easier to fit on the page, however, no-one gets to tell the viewer whether they should be look­ing at the diameter of the circle or the area.

Why is that import­ant? Because as a rule, the human brain is quite bad at work­ing out how to compare circles — if we’re compar­ing areas, gener­ally we see them as repres­ent­ing a smal­ler value than they do, and if we’re compar­ing diameter, we gener­ally think they repres­ent larger values than they actu­ally do. But hey, there’s no guar­an­tee which one your viewer is judging, anyway!

How about squares and rect­angles? Take a look at the Billion Euro-o-Gram:

Comparing squares is prob­ably fine, because whatever meas­ure­ment you use, what you see will be propor­tional. But what happens when you use rect­angles? Could one edge being longer than the other affect your percep­tion of it, make it seem bigger than a square with the same area? Here’s the big purple rect­angle as it’s pictured, and as a square. I’m not sure I’d know they repres­en­ted the same figure, if they were presen­ted side by side, but that’s what this partic­u­lar infographic asks us to do.

And if two similar-sized squares are far away from each other, or surroun­ded by objects of differ­ent sizes, would­n’t the brain find it harder to tell which is bigger? In the bottom-middle there’s a load of figures around the €200 billion mark, but they’re all portrayed in differ­ent ways, making them diffi­cult to compare.

€38 billion (in purple, right-middle) looks much smal­ler than €40 billion (light blue, bottom-middle) because of colour contrast and because it’s surroun­ded by values that match it’s height but not width, squeez­ing it.

The trouble for me is, I quite like infograph­ics. I like design­ing them. I’m even guilty of perpetu­at­ing a fair few of the complaints I’m level­ling at these examples. But I can’t help but recog­nise that as pretty as they are, they have limited appeal.

And if we want more than the usual suspects to be able to make head or tail of them, we need to make sure the infograph­ics we create are much more accessible.

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Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.

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