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The Art of Information: How We Show Facts Matters

The Art of Information

Infographics are widely used and are an incredibly important way to convey information to viewers in a way that facilitates one’s ability to understand the scope of the particular subject being displayed. Any visual image used to represent information could be considered an infographic. Charts, maps, artwork, lists, PowerPoints, and more examples you may be familiar with.

What you may also be familiar with is an infographic’s powerful ability to influence viewers. Be that for better or worse, it’s important for any viewers of a visual medium to understand what it is they’re looking at. They should be asking questions such as: What is the author’s intent? How is what’s being displayed different from what’s being represented? Is the actual source of the information correct to begin with?

As it turns out, there is a complex history of infographics and many things to understand about them that will make you a more informed viewer of information. Look at the graph I provided as an example. It is from an Argentinian News source that is reporting on the number of Covid-19 tests per 1 million people. Despite The United States (EEUU) having 7000 tests compared to Argentina’s 330, The US’s bar is only slightly higher.

All Infographics Misrepresent Information

It is a simple and crucial fact to understand that no matter how well intentioned and unbiased the designer of an infographic may be, there is no possible way to represent information without affecting it in some way. Anytime information is transposed into a different medium, the original components of the medium are altered and no longer the same as what’s being represented.

This applies to gathering raw data from the real world as well. Take a red ball for instance, and a toy maker trying to create a perfect recreation of the toy. Let’s assume he does, by some miracle, manage to create a ball of the exact same atomic structure as the original. They still will never be the same because they won’t ever be able to occupy the same space, meaning the information the original contains in relation to its relative position with other objects will not be able to exist simultaneously with the recreation. While this may sound like a widely impractical idea, keep in mind that this concept is magnified significantly in the process of converting real-world phenomena into numbers, and furthermore by representing those phenomena in a visual format simplified for our understanding.

Look at our flat maps of the world. Every flat representation of the planet earth has to make sacrifices to its own accuracy, be that shape, size, or visual effectiveness. As for our globes, they suffer from their own lack of scale, providing only an overview of what the earth has to offer, and displaying only minimally the extent of geography and weather patterns that cover our planet. Our perception of their accuracy is only relative to what we know is possible of them, and our understanding of what they can’t do allows us the wisdom to search elsewhere for such information about our planet without assuming the earth’s surface is as bare as what may be seen on a globe.

There are arguably an infinite number of ways to display any amount of given information, each with its benefits and drawbacks. The most genuine of artists will do their best to create an infographic that most beneficially contributes to the viewers cognitive understanding as it pertains to the subject matter being alluded to. This standard is of course largely subjective, but throughout time, practices for good analytical design have developed into a much more cohesive set of rules.

What Is the Purpose of an Infographic?

It might come as a surprise to you to learn that not all infographics are made with the purpose of simplifying information. Certainly that is a possibility, but there are many different fields in which infographics are used. In academic settings for instance, an infographic could contain a shockingly dense amount of information incomprehensible to the average viewer. In this sense, the infographic has not made the information any simpler, but rather compiled it into a way that’s conducive to thinking. Making an infographic is a way of organizing information after all, and by placing relevant pieces of information beside one another one can construct a narrative for their viewer to follow.

Edward R. Tufte is one of the original minds behind the drive to study infographic design. He says quite astutely in his book, Beautiful Evidence, “The purpose of an evidence presentation is to assist thinking.” The purpose of an infographic then is not to simplify complex information, but to adjust the reader’s understanding of the information so that they may think more critically about it.

A poorly made infographic will leave the reader more confused than before, and a maliciously made one will leave the reader with an obviously false understanding of the source of information, but in neither case is the quality of the infographic measured by the speed in which it’s understood by the reader. A good infographic will be able to strengthen the reader’s understanding of a subject after they’ve taken the time to analyze it.

The Key Takeaway

The final takeaway here is that you shouldn’t see infographics as pieces of easily digestible information, but rather as something to be studied as you would the actual text of an article with the hope that it will ultimately facilitate the depth (rather than the ease) in which you comprehend the author’s argument.

The intent of many authors is of course not this ideal presented by Tufte. They wish to make complex information appear simple to more effectively sculpt the information presented to the reader. It is the reader’s job to be able to see through deception, not relying on a trustworthy author being readily available. Hopefully by understanding a little more about what infographics are capable of and what they are used to doing, spotting these deceptions will be a little bit easier.

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