Rise of the Infogeeks

In case you haven’t noticed, infographics are becoming cool. Gone are the days when we had to try camouflaging our nerdy activities under terms such as “graphic reporting” or even ”graphic journalism.” Take a look around and you will see lots of young graphic designers pumping out charts and diagrams – the more complex, the better. Now we just need to convince these newly enlightened infographic freshmen that making things understandable to other people can be as interesting as verbo-visualizing every possible aspect of their own lives and minds.

Now you may be rejecting my premise: Were infographics ever uncool? Haven’t journalists always loved war maps, pie charts and escape-route diagrams, and admired their gifted colleagues who knew how to produce them? And my short answer is: No they have not, and neither have graphic designers. Twenty years ago, the majority of newspaper professionals felt they had to accept infographics because they were told that readers liked them, and hiring an infographic artist was seen as an easy, and relatively cheap, way to make it look as if they cared about what their readers thought.

As for graphic designers, the cool ones became art directors or created corporate identity programs, and the harder it was to understand the ideas behind their designs, the cooler they were. Paradoxical as it may sound, the nature of infographics – the built-in squareness – meant that the craft would appeal mainly to oddballs.

The first time I noticed a change and realized that geekiness might become trendy, was when my daughter started high school and picked the tall, skinny, kind-of strange boy who wore spectacles and dressed like his father for her date at the First-Year Ball – instead of the handsome and charming soccer goalkeeper (over here, we don’t have quarterbacks) from her elder brother’s circle of friends. Ever since, it has only become clearer to me that we have entered an era when young people, at least in some social circles, do not try hiding their eccentricities; quite the opposite, in fact.

A very obvious sign of this development is a change in attitude among students. At the Danish School of Media and Journalism where I have been teaching infographics since 1989, we have had to deal with negative preconceptions at the start of the class for years. My struggle to convince at least some of these would-be ADs that using the graphic language to make other people understand complicated things was not a complete waste, and that not everyone producing visual explanations had to be a total loser, was often a hard one. Now students happily engage in complex visualizations of how the way they get to school varies regarding altitude above sea level, or showing the relation between mentionings of the words “love” and “f…” in their iTunes playlists, or between how old they are, how much they can drink, and how much sleep they need afterwards. Just to name a few examples. (They get these ideas themselves!)

Of course, being their professor, I am having a ball, and I would love to help some of these talented communicators find positions where they can utilize their skills to the benefit of us all. Well executed infographics contribute to making the world a better place. I do, however, see two major challenges on the way to Infotopia.

One is about the money. As infographics demand thorough research and are quite time-consuming to produce properly, there is no little doubt that they make for the most expensive square centimeters with which you can fill a publication. The current media situation does not exactly provide fertile ground for a new infographics revolution, no matter how many potential Nigel Holmeses might be out there.

The other challenge is about subtly adjusting the mindsets of the young infographic generation so that its members will find it equally, perhaps even more, stimulating to produce visual explanations that do not involve themselves and their own personal lives. The Felton Report, which can hardly be over-estimated as a source of inspiration – maybe even the igniting spark which put infographics into the minds of young trendspotters, and those of their pals – is at the same time a scary example of the ever-present self-obsession which we have to oppose. The much-hyped Karlsson Wilker design company is another example of visual rock’n’rollers who sometimes seem to value style over substance.

What do what we can to further enlighten these young talents and turn their fling with infographics into a lasting love, but how do we help them metamorphasize into mature communicators without losing the fun and enthusiasm that got them going in the first place, and where on Earth do we find businesses which can help them exploit their geekiness to actually make a living? Any suggestions?

OLE MUNK is a graphic designer, design and communication consultant, and illustrator, based in Espergaerde, Denmark. He holds an architectural degree from the Institute of Visual Communication at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. He has been managing director of Ribergaard & Munk Communication Design (www.ribmunk.dk) since July 1995. He was president of the Society for News Design/Scandinavia 1997-99.