You know that a trend has been established when the parodies begin. On the opposite page you will find the Big Graphic Blueprint, created by Nathan Yau, which mocks the modern trend of supplying data in some sort of chart. Certainly infographics – presenting often complicated data in an illustrative way in order to attract attention and help understanding – are very trendy just now.But the process is not at all new.
Take for example the Nightingale Rose Graph, also shown opposite. It is named after its creator, Florence Nightingale, an English nurse who became famous during the Crimean War, when she looked after wounded soldiers. Nightingale was also a statistician and her graphic uses what are now commonly referred to as “polar diagrams.” It uses a type of pie chart to show the causes of mortality in the army, and was sent in a report to Queen Victoria in 1858.
In the 1930s, the International System of Typographic Picture Education, Isotype, was developed by the Viennese social scientist and philosopher Otto Neurath and designer Gerd Arntz as a method for visual statistics. Neurath was the founding director of the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna, which promoted the idea that “to remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate pictures.” Isotype symbols, some examples of which are shown opposite, have been hugely influential in the development of information graphics.
Business is no stranger to the chart and graph. But those pushing the boundaries of infographic design – normally outside the corporate world – are a multi-talented group, and are combining journalistic techniques with the visual logic of graphic design and the user-centric values of web interfaces. The results are impressive. Corporate communicators, who are often faced with the challenge of presenting complicated data to a busy audience suffering from information overload, should take note.
A good place to see the whimsical illustration of weighty matter is London-based magazine Monocle – where serious economic and global affairs journalism is often presented with hyper-stylish cartoon cuteness. Monocle Creative Director Richard Spencer Powell explains: “The balance is in part to add lightness to a magazine which is serious, to inject color and wit and express certain notions which cannot be done with photography. It’s an editorial balancing act.” On designing infographics, Spencer Powell believes that you have to have the technical skills but also a good graphic and editorial eye. “You have to be subtle, not flash. The information should be legible first and attractive second, not bombastic or distracting.”
“Advertising has long known the power of simple, visual communication. Tight concepts, strong visuals and very short copy,” says David McCandless, writer, designer and author of a psychedelic ode to the infographic, Information is Beautiful. Asked to describe what infographics are in one word, McCandless answers “portals,” suggesting a gateway through which we can access data. This is perhaps where the influence of the web becomes apparent. Infographics provide, he says, “a way of accessing the flood of information we are drowning in,” in the same way that good web apps do.
Similarly, the graphic user interface (GUI) of something like the iPhone helps people navigate a plethora of information. Monocle’s Spencer Powell continues: “Apple are the world’s best information designers. Essentially they are digital librarians. All they have ever done is make a simple humanistic way to store and display information.” A good infographic achieves something similar by applying visual navigation aids, such as proportion, form and color, to a data set. The goal is the holy grail of communications: something interesting.
Edward Tufte is Professor Emeritus
of Political Science, Statistics,
and Computer Science at Yale
University. A champion of “intense
clarity” and campaigner against
“pitch culture,” Tufte has been
appointed by President Obama
to the Recovery Independent Advisory
Panel to help make the Recovery.gov