Sunday, May 23, 2010

Infographics: The good, the bad, and what's next

Not quite charts on sterioids, not quite the full story, Infographics have gone from a novel USA Today front page box to essential viewing online, and not just for news sites. Causes, companies and more are finding that infographics allow a faster grasp of information and if you offer embedding codes, your infographics can go viral as well as a video can.  It's another key component in the essentially visual nature of a rebooted communications effort. Here are insights--good, sublime, ridiculous, ancient and futuristic--to keep in mind when building up your infographic communications:

The good:  GOOD has a rich section of topical infographics that's well worth a look when you need inspiration--and from time to time, runs infographic contests to find the best options for depicting data on current events, a great opportunity for your organization and designers to shine.

The sublime:  Here's a great post on 7 and 1/2 steps to successful infographics from Sarah Slobin, who's worked graphical magic at the New York Times (where there's a 30-person infographics team), Fortune and the Wall Street Journal.  Share this with your media relations team so they better understand how data get turned into graphics at news organizations, but keep a copy for yourself.  From getting an idea to scrubbing your data, this is a lengthy and smart backgrounder on what makes a good infographic tick--and how it affects workflow. Consider this snippet:
When I was at the NYT, there was this reporter who drove a thousand miles across country chasing this thesis that population growth was sparked near off-ramps on the interstate. It was a lovely road-trip story; he gathered amazing anecdotes and the editors loved it. Except that when we mapped the census data it didn't support the thesis. Imagine how much gas he could have saved had he started by looking at the data.
The ridiculous:  Then there's the opposite, the bad infographic. And it abounds in the land. Fortunately, Imagine a Pie Chart Stomping on an Infographic Forever includes a gallery of bad infographics to show you what to avoid, along with well-thought-out advice.  Even if you don't pass the first item around the office, do share this one. Readers will thank you.

After here be dragons:  For a reminder that we've been struggling with infographics for centuries, check out this article about a recent Library of Congress conference on portolan charts, medieval maps that still mystify researchers, who can't find the sources of much of the (accurate) data they contained in their beautiful pages. Take some inspiration, and a history lesson while you're at it.

Where we might want to be headed next:  Finally, check out this video of New York Times reporter and blogger Andrew Revkin, sharing a visualization by Adam Nieman, who looks for new ways to show the complex issues facing the environment--in this case, making all the world's oceans look like a bead of water, but one that's an accurate depiction of oceans' mass in relation to the Earth.  (The link goes to Neiman's very good blog; he's already thinking about visualizations of the BP oil disaster.)

You can also get inspired with this mashup of Google Earth and a template of the oil spill.  Paul Rademacher, who started the Google Earth Browser Plugin and currently is engineering manager for the Google Maps frontend, created the How big is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? site to let you compare its spread with better-known points on the map, so you can overlay the spill on maps of San Francisco, Manhattan and more. The idea here: It's tough to "see" the spill, much of which is on the ocean floor, so this infographic puts it on dry land (infographically speaking) to help it make more sense. This interactive experience is one you might consider for bumping your infographics up to the next level; the program's created with Google Earth API.

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