Tom Webster, writing and speaking

One Simple Rule For Good Infographics

Added on by Tom Webster.

I was honored to have been asked by Mark Smiciklas to contribute to his new book, The Power of Infographics, on the topic of their proper use (and misuse.) Contrary to what you might think, I don't hate infographics. In fact, I love infographics, when they meet my one, simple standard: a good infographic should reduce complex data into an easily digestible snapshot, facilitating comprehension. Great infographics should tell the story of numbers. Increasingly, however, I see infographics in social being used to tell a story, all right--but not necessarily the story of the data. Some of the worst offenders cherry pick data from incomparable studies, weaving them together as if they came from the same study. A good infographic should allow the viewer to quickly make an apples-to-apples comparison of two or more complex sets of data, but many of the infographics I see, as I noted in Mark's book, "blithely place apples, oranges and unaccredited bananas" all over the place.

Still, the key to a great and useful infographic is whether or not it renders a complex dataset comprehensible for the general public. Infographics we do not need include those that make a simple fact or figure "pretty" (if you need to "dress up" a number, pick a better number) or those that make a simple dataset needlessly complex (and here I'm thinking about the various "ecosystem" graphics that have made the rounds in social over the past year or so).

Infographics done properly can actually save lives. You may not know this, but the "mother" of the infographic was Florence Nightingale, who you doubtlessly know from her work in reforming care for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. What you might not know is that she was an ace statistician (she was the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Statistical Society) and either invented or popularized a number of data visualization methods we take for granted, like the pie chart, and polar area diagrams, like this one:

Nightingale mortality

It was this infographic, a comparative look at the numbers of soldiers who died of preventable/treatable diseases exacerbated by poor battlefield care (the big blue wedges) with those who died of their wounds (red) and other causes (black) that led the British Army to develop more robust battlefield hospitals and dramatically improve sanitary conditions for wounded soldiers. This infographic saved lives by rendering a very complex dataset into a very simple diagram, easily grokkable by any competent Army officer.

Now, I don't always expect an infographic to save lives--my bar isn't that high. But infographics like this next one could cost lives. Mine, anyway. Make them stop.