I recently did an email interview with Anthony Ha of AdWeek on the explosion of infographics, and whether they still have value. Here is the resulting story — it’s good and worth a read.
Below I’ve pasted the full text of what I sent Anthony if you’re interested in this topic more than most.
On the explosion and backlash:
“We’re as guilty as anyone for our role in the infographic explosion. For awhile there, it was a real gold rush as the genre matured, and became more accepted as an editorial trope. Of course, data-driven design is as old as dirt. But its renaissance came about because of the confluence of the Big Data movement, the development of downstream visualization tools that make sense at the seat level, and the withering of art departments at major and minor publishers alike. Well, and there’s the overarching, more straightforward reason, which is that good infographics drive page views. Audiences like them — a lot. They’re useful. They make the non-obvious…obvious. They make me look smarter at the water cooler. And they make boring but important topics and trends palatable again. I’d argue that infographics serve, actually, an important societal function. In a world that is defined more and more by the data we produce and the data upon which we all make decisions, the ability to communicate insights and lessons from that data will continue to be of real importance.”
Why the backlash? First symptom:
“So why has there been a backlash, and a justifiable one at that? Look, great data design will always be great data design. To take an analogue — blogging’s rise didn’t necessarily make for better writing on the whole — rather, it unearthed hidden talent, and exposed anyone resting on their laurels. It changed journalism, certainly, but it didn’t change what it means to be a great writer, and it didn’t change inherent demand for great writing. The same is true for infographics. There will always be a place for great design. There’s just a lot more chaff now. The bar is set much higher for anyone who wants to play. I think this is a good thing. Look at BJ Heinley’s stuff, look at Bryan Connor, look at Jess3 and Stamen — theirs is quality work that will endure. There has been a backlash first and foremost because a lot of the infographics out there right now are lazy mimicry, and they talk down to their audience. They’re pedantic. They don’t bother drawing the viewer in and making our neurons fire. They’re candy. Great infographics are more like a brain teaser, or a that first chapter in a find your own adventure booklet.”
“Also symptomatic are, no offense, bloggers and journalists themselves. A great infographic doesn’t mean that you don’t have to write a post, or a story. An infographic and the data it represents is not the news in and of itself —it’s a lens. An infographic can even be the headline, or the lede, but these visualizations still need an editorial function on top to frame and contextualize. I’d be curious to really know how Visually is doing — theirs is sort of a marketplace/gallery play. But my gut says that the editorial function in and around data and any associated visualizations becomes more important – not less so, given the current explosion in production. Too many publishers just throw up an infographic and call it a day. Infographics fare very well over social media, and they have SEO value, too. I get the allure, and I don’t envy the economics of media businesses that find themselves under the gun. But the people selecting and publishing infographics certainly bear some of the blame for what has become a very watered-down genre.”
“One of the other symptoms that really deserves talking about is the quality of the data that goes into infographics, which is generally poor, secondhand, or clumsily derived, often by hand. Shit in, shit out. The greatest visualization cannot mask shortcomings in the underlying data. That’s a fallacy too many have come to believe in. High-end viz isn’t a band-aid. Invest in high-fidelity data, and then worry about telling great stories. So many companies that we’ve worked with — and decided not to work with — want to skip directly to visualization, enamored by its many benefits. But very, very few companies have invested in the ability to programmatically self-describe, to harvest data from their own stores effectively. Know thyself — that’s step one. Too many people are skipping step one. The data is only news if it is newsworthy. The data is only convincing if it is real. Empirical beats anecdotal. Recycled, manufactured, or found data won’t suffice.”
What’s next? On what’s after:
“So what needs to happen? If you grant me that good data design is never going to go away, here’s how it plays out. Visualizations that articulate as news (public relations usage) or art (advertising usage) will need to get better and more ambitious. The data needs to be of note and the design needs to be of note. And we’ve already seen a few glimpses of what’s next — personalized infographics constructed on the fly for each individual, live infographics that change in real-time as the data feeding them likewise evolves, visualizations popping up inside of video and live action footage as part of the environment, and infographic installations in the real world, in airports, hotels, museums, parks and government buildings.”
On ramifications for journalism:
“As for journalism itself, I think that publishers have to reinvest in original data creation and extraction — investigative journalism, so to speak — just as much as they also develop, in parallel, the necessary skill of data analysis in each member of their editorial staff — that is, the ability to interview the data, as you would any external source, or subject, replete with its own biases and agenda. This is exactly what the Daily Dot has done, and why its CEO Nick White has invested so heavily in data. Groundbreaking publisher-side tools like Parse.ly will help too. As for the art piece, the design — I think that will remain a decision that is made on a case-by-case basis. The richest publishers are able to afford in-house artists who can produce beautiful renderings. Smaller, less fortunate operations will have to be more scrappy — using contributed art from trusted brands or agencies, or integrating consumer-grade tools that can automate big chunks of design work. The best data, coupled with the cleverest design, will float to the top — the market, so to speak, for infographics, will recalibrate on its own. It already has.”
On ramifications for public relations, and branding:
“As for companies who make data available only when it benefits them, and only when they have something to sell, I would issue a challenge of sorts — transparency of data, within reason, is good public relations, and good corporate practice. Make open data a mandate. Start small, but be ambitious, The press page of the future should, for example, house query-able data sets that describe the organization in question as well as any boilerplate or demo tutorial or executive bio. In 5 years it will be reasonable for a journalist or influencer to expect public access to key data about your organization — I’ll want to read your data just as much as I’ll want to read your about page. And that notion will become normative across all industries, even if the tech sector leads the way. For startups who have a unique view unto the world, why have almost none of you made it obscenely easy for the press to use your third-party data to tell new stories about the world at large? There are a few that have gone to such lengths and they have enjoyed an enormous benefit. Make it self-serve, and make it easy, and they will come. And for brands? Right now, data for the most part isn’t thought of as being branded. But look at Nielsen, look at FICO, heck, look at our favorite topic of debate these days, Klout. Data is one of the biggest brand opportunities out there right now, and yet so few brands are thinking this way. Don’t overlook the very real fact of data as branding. It’s of the widest-open opportunities there is, period.”