Visualize this: Is it information or is it art?

An old infographic chestnut. It’s always been a tricky balance between getting the story across, and making a great image. But thanks to some serious computing power, we’ve arrived at a crunch point. In one corner of the ring is information, and in the other is art, and they’ve been slugging it out.

Big revelation: The biggest trend in infographics right now is data visualization. Taking complex data sets, crunching them through some expensive software, and seeing what comes out the other end. It’s exciting stuff.  Dreary spreadsheets can be transformed into beautiful artwork. Spirals, circles, piles of dots and other assorted shapes. Lots of overlapping info in brilliant colors. Population trends turned into a wheel of interconnecting dots.  I love it, but to be honest, I often have no idea what’s going on.

A worrying aside: My students keep bringing stunning examples they have found on the Internet. But they are rarely able to tell me what the graphic shows.

Yes, in many cases, you really do have to be a rocket scientist to know what’s going on.  In my nightmares, turbo-charged Spirographs are on a rampage.

All of this is not a problem at all, until… wild visualizations start masquerading as infographics.

All Streets by Ben Fry.

Wheat and Wages chart by William Playfair, 1821. Probably the original data viz guy!

Regulation/Innovation by Jer Thorp.

Let’s not lose sight of the end user in this. Unless we’re creating pieces for a gallery, everything in a graphic should work to help people make sense of complex information. Especially now, when we’re being bombarded with info from all sides. All kinds of alarmist “information overload” statements are being made at conferences by people like me. But us infographic folk are uniquely positioned to help. We know how to create some order by applying design principles to information. So let’s do that, and not add to the chaos.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great data visualizations around, and I applaud them. But it’s a new form, and we’re still learning what to do with it.

In my little world, I like infographics that have been carefully edited and ordered to tell a story clearly. Graphics that turn the light on, not turn it off.  Information first, art second. Follow that mantra, and data visualization is part of an exciting future.

Want to visualize? Click here …

John Grimwade is information graphics director at Condé Nast Traveler and a long time supporter, teacher, mentor for SND infographics.