Me, in a magazine, talking about porn – infoporn that is!

robert hempsall letter to design week about infographics

I got a lovely surprise when I opened the most recent edition of Design Week and found out that a comment I had left on a recent article, Facts in focus, had been featured as the lead ‘Letter to the editor’. The article was about the growing prevalence of ‘infographics’, not just in their traditional home of newspapers, but also their use online.

What’s an infographic?

For those that don’t know, infographic is short for information graphic, and is used to describe a way of showing information visually, rather than in words or data. It could be argued that good old bar charts are primitive infographics, from the days before so much data was available to us all, and before there was such a demand to know about it.

Before the rise of newspaper infographics, the stars of the show were probably airline safety cards, which used a visual approach to cross language barriers, and to help users quickly visualise what they would need to do in case of a problem, rather than explaining it in words.

example of an airline safety card infographic

For a really good resource on infographics, take a look at www.flowingdata.com

What I wrote about

My comment centred around this particular infographic about how the government spends the money it gets from UK taxpayers. It is from a series by the Guardian newspaper, called Fact Files. These were released prior to the recent general election to explain a number of issues within the UK, including politics and health (I know this because these are the ones I managed to get my hands on).

infographic from the Guardian showing uk government spending

What I said

“I’m a huge fan of the Guardian’s infographics, and have kept the parts of their recent Fact File series that I managed to get my hands on. However, I do think the example shown above follows an increasing trend to show information graphically slightly for the sake of it: to make it more visually interesting than a more usable solution would be.

“In some cases infographics become more like art than design. All that said, I’ll still study them with interest.”

What else I would have said, if I wasn’t trying to be brief

That was the short version of my issue, albeit it a minor one, that as the infographic approach becomes more commonplace, there seems to be an automatic reaction to present information this way when a more simple (how did you know that was where this was leading) but less glamorous approach would probably communicate the information more effectively. My plea is not to end the use of infographics, in fact they are the kind of thing I’d love to do more of. No, my plea is that they be used appropriately, when they are the most effective way of explaining a process or some data.

This is where term infoporn comes in handy. It’s a term I first discovered on Wired’s website, in an article called “Infoporn: Despite the Web, Americans Remain Woefully Ill-Informed, although it may have been used elsewhere before that. Although it’s not a word I tend to trot out in polite company (fortunately most of my time is spent in very impolite company) I do think it nicely describes the practice of glamourising information to make people look at it, even though in many cases it’s probably not that interesting.

In some senses, it’s a shame that out of seven twenty page publications that the Guardian produced, it is this one that seems to be rolled out as an example, because it’s the one example where I think the designers lost the plot slightly – a fact that Max Gadney, who knows more than a thing or two about these matter, disagrees with. Based on what I saw, the remainder of the series was very innovative, and the designers managed to create a number of very original approaches to presenting what was clearly very hefty data.

I totally understand the counter-argument to my point, which is that the simple way may not be enough to make people study the data: there wouldn’t be enough visual interest to draw people in to read it, and when this approach is used a selling tool that’s what matters. And perhaps this goes a long way to explain why the infographic approach has become so popular, particularly online. Done well, big bold graphics explaining a point are going to get a better reaction than a lot of words or numbers would do: would I have kept the Guardian Fact Files if they hadn’t looked so darn good? I doubt it!

3 thoughts on “Me, in a magazine, talking about porn – infoporn that is!”

  1. Good post. I think it’s probably a bit of a fad, though I do know some people love these things more than the articles. I suppose it depends on how you like to get information – map vs. directions. Maybe it’s something to do with being an arts or science type of person? Mostly though I think the designers should always say to themselves before they start: just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

  2. Thanks Guy.

    I think you’re right about the fact that some people look at the infographics more than the articles – I’m one of them, but purely from a professional point of view of course.

    I think their prevalence is partly down to a reduction in people’s attention span, and using them to catch people’s attention. Used correctly though, they’re ideal for telling a story that would otherwise be very long and turgid.

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