The proliferation of infographics online is helping to make a broad, somewhat statistically illiterate, audience aware of important data and trends.
For those designing these infographics, therefore, there is a need that they understand their process intimately–from data collection to illustration–in order to analyse it honestly and with meaning.
Through a “showcase of bad infographics”, Smashing Magazine lambasts the trend of inappropriate inforgraphics and offers an interesting essay on why designers need to be statistically literate.
The importance of statistical literacy in the Internet age is clear, but the concept is not exclusive to designers. I’d like to focus on it because designers must consider it in a way that most people do not have to: statistical literacy is more than learning the laws of statistics; it is about representations that the human mind can understand and remember.
As a designer, you get to choose those representations. Most of the time this is a positive aspect. Visual representations allow you to quickly summarize a data set or make connections that might be difficult to perceive otherwise. Unfortunately, designers too often forget that data exists for more than entertainment or aesthetics. If you design a visualization before correctly understanding the data on which it is based, you face the very real risk of summarizing incorrectly, producing faulty insights, or otherwise mangling the process of disseminating knowledge. If you do this to your audience, then you have violated an expectation of singular importance for any content creator: their expectation that you actually know what you’re talking about.
The two rules of infographic production:
- If it would lead to the wrong conclusions, not presenting the data at all would be better.
- Your project isn’t ready to be released into the wild if you’ve spent more time choosing a font than choosing your data.
I am reminded of this tangentially-related infographic template from FlowingData.
After collating the results of over 1,500 studies and meta-studies (only “large, human, randomized placebo-controlled trials” were included), Information is Beautiful’s David McCandless collaborated with Andy Perkins to produce a comprehensive data visualisation mapping the the effectiveness (or not) of a wide range of health supplements (there’s a static image and interactive Flash version available).
Some of the findings:
- Green tea has been shown to lower cholesterol in a large number of studies, but there’s no sign of cancer prevention properties.
- There’s strong evidence showing Omega 3’s cholesterol-lowering abilities and good evidence indicating it can help improve some ADHD behaviour and lower blood pressure. In terms of preventing arthritis and cancer, and in relieving depression, the evidence is conflicting.
- Fish oil has been shown to help lower blood pressure and the risk of secondary heart disease, but the evidence for it improving general health isn’t strong (but is promising).
- Vitamin D is fantastic: great for all-round general health and cancer prevention.
- Vitamins A and E aren’t beneficial for much at all, while Vitamin C studies are somewhat conflicting.
- Beta carotene’s position surprised me: there is little-to-no evidence of any health benefits. The same goes for acai and goji berries, ginkgo biloba and copper.
The raw data used to generate the visualisation is available–along with citations–in a Google document that is occasionally being updated.
Earlier this year Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger asked Information Architects, a Japanese-Swiss UX-oriented web design agency, to come up with a pitch for a redesign of their offline newspaper.
The result is a concept and set of designs that are subtle re-workings of what works for print, integrated with what works online.
The concept was:Â Use all knowledge from contemporary user experience design and translate it to paper. Make the paper more usable, think cross media instead of separate media, while using the strength of the paper (pictures, info graphics, nice text) to the max. Keep the look as close as possible to the original brand and change the guts of the design. Make a product that people want to buy because it is more usable that the competitor, not because it wins graphic design prices.
Basic rule: Ignore all rules of newspaper design to start with and keep only the ones that are useful to the reader:
- Optimize text for reading.
- Reduction to two fonts.
- Scannability and print link.
- Four columns for soft news, five columns for hard news, mixed 4/5 columns for sports. Ragged text for opinion.
- Big pictures, big info graphics, use the strength of the paper medium.
I am reminded of two instances where large information visualisations were prominent on the front page of newspapers: The Independent’s Middle East ceasefire infographic and a Herald graphic depicting Washington’s $2 billion budget deficit. It works.
Update: I knew I had seen this before and knew I hadn’t written about it here on Lone Gunman before. However, thanks must go to Andrew Smith for pointing out in the comments that it was posted here previously: by the erudite Andrew Simone in his guest post,Â Newspaper.
Pie charts have been having a bad time of it lately* and I can’t see things improving anytime soon.
In one of the better articles looking at this humble chart, Brian Suda notes not only at what you can do instead, but what improvements you can make if you’re forced to use the pie chart.
The original idea behind a pie chart is that it represents parts of a whole, each sliver or wedge is a section, when totaled gives you the overall picture. Over the years pie charts have morphed purely into eye-candy, exemplified by their sister graph the doughnut chart, which offers zero additional information.
If we look at a few examples, you will quickly see the failings in the circular design along with how easy it can be used to misrepresent data.
One such example of how a pie chart can be used to misrepresent data was Steve Jobs’ keynote at Macworld 2008–as discussed in Suda’s article and over atÂ The Guardian.
* Seth Godin called pie charts “spectacularly overrated” and Seed said we need to “get past the pie chart”.
The problem: “presenting large amounts of information in a way that is compact, accurate, adequate for the purpose, and easy to understand”.
The solution: Edward Tufte (actually, the solution is “to develop a consistent approach to the display of graphics which enhances its dissemination, accuracy, and ease of comprehension“â€¦ but that’s not as catchy).
Yes, it’s an article outlining Edward Tufte’s “work on theÂ use of graphics to display quantitative information”, as gleaned from his three books: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information.