Everywhere I look, there are suddenly infographics for everything. I think they started becoming especially trendy in 2011, but 2012 is shaping up as The Year of the Infographic. Why say it in text when you can say it with an infographic? The meme has spread like wildfire across the Internet, to the point that it seems like half the time when I click on an article expecting a discussion and thoughtful analysis of information, instead it’s just an infographic with two lines of text about the source of the information. No commentary, and no attempt to contextualise the information in the infographic for the viewer.
There are a lot of reasons I really dislike this trend, and one of them was embedded right in the last sentence of the last paragraph: the viewer. Infographics are a visual presentation of information, which makes them inaccessible to people who can’t access or process information visually. That might be because of blindness or low vision, but also a result of cognitive impairments. Others may not be able to load infographics on slow connections or phones.
Very, very rarely, I see the information in an infographic presented textually as well, but at this point such sightings have become unicorns. There’s not even a token attempt at including blind and low vision readers. Usually there’s no alt text at all, or utterly unhelpful text like ‘graph12.jpg’ or ‘solitaryconfinementchart.’ Which means that a chunk of the potential audience is just cut out from the start: They can’t access the information, and therefore can’t process it, think about it, and participate in the conversation. They certainly can’t take the information away with them and apply it in new settings; for example, when they sit around the dinner table that night, they can’t say ‘I got some very interesting information on unemployment statistics today,’ because they didn’t get that information.
Furthermore, the visual presentation of data can be very susceptible to manipulation, both intentional and unintentional. Designers of infographics can put a great deal of thought into information handling to advance a specific agenda, and that may not be identified by viewers, even those who are alert to the way visual data can be manipulated. Pie charts are particularly prone to this problem, and they pop up in infographics a lot. When you present data visually and do so dishonestly, the viewer can come away with inaccurate information and not be aware of it. Viewers may also have trouble understanding some of the information presented, and when no contextual text is provided, the information isn’t clarified for their benefit.
When an infographic is done badly, it can do an equally poor job of conveying the information. The designer may end up making a point opposite of the one intended, or may confuse viewers so much that they’re not clear what the point of the information is. Especially when only a few points of data are presented, people might reasonably wonder why it wasn’t a text article, or wasn’t presented as a single (described) chart with information to accompany text. People shouldn’t be doing graphical presentations just because they think they look neat, but rather because they are the best way to depict information, and because they add value.
Viewed on its own with no context, a infographic can be of varying uses. I’ve seen a few good ones, but even those limit the information to visual access only, with no attempt to put the data in text form, let alone add some context for thought and discussion. This is great for people who prefer visual information, or settings when visuals are the best option, but it’s critical to offer two options: visual, and text, for the benefit of anyone who might be reading[1. And hey, guess what, text as part of a picture doesn’t count, because screenreaders can’t pick it up and it won’t load when people have image display off.]. An infographic can be a fantastic tool if used responsibly, but they usually aren’t, and I’m tired of seeing them everywhere.
Memes like this tend to catch on, sweep the Internet, and then quietly vanish again. While the infographic has a long history and will always be a part of information presentation on some level, right now, it’s big. That means that people need to start thinking more closely about whether an infographic is appropriate, and how to present it effectively. Yeah, that requires more work to go through the data, come up with text and image versions, and make sure it’s presented logically. But ultimately, it’s a better service to readers and viewers.
If the genuine goal is to give people information and provide them with a jumping-off point to more data and critical discussion, the onus is on the creator to serve the data effectively through its presentation, rather than clouding, manipulating, or muddling it so badly that it’s less an infographic and more a falseographic. Ample scholarship has been produced on the visual presentation of information, so there’s really no excuse for doing infographics badly at this point, especially with the interconnected nature of resources online.
At all these conferences where people discuss media and information, a few workshops on proper infographic use and presentation would not go amiss, because many media outlets have apparently eschewed all responsibility when it comes to handling visual information. And that’s a crying shame, because often the information embedded in infographics is fascinating, important, and critical for the audience.