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Information Empathy and Infographics

17 March
Photo credit: Stefon Leijon

Photo credit: Stefon Leijon

Edward Tufte, the father of data visualization, turned 74 earlier this week. Tufte is a fellow of the American Statistical Association, and has written extensively on the value of beautifully designed data illustrations, with respect for the reader’s time and intelligence of main concern. He coined the term “chartjunk” – the visual elements that clutter and detract from quantitative graphics. He’s also written about the evils of Powerpoint!

A recent article in Forbes distilled Tufte’s groundbreaking research in the data visualization space into six key concepts:

  • Remember, the reader is there for the data, not the interface.
  • Graphics should have the intense resolution of typography for ease of consumption and understanding.
  • Reaching a conclusion is a firm human goal, but the data may not always support a conclusion.
  • Respect for the audience is a basic and often overlooked principle.
  • Seeing how the data is collected is crucial, but that information is often masked in graphic presentations.
  • Google images is far better than Google words, when doing research.

Tufte wrote on his website about his favorite illustrator Megan Jaegerman, who created elegant news graphics for the New York Times when infographics were just coming into their own. Infographics have now become ubiquitous across social media, because they’re so eye-catching and easy to share. The virality of the infographic form has helped nurture demand for pictures that tell the story behind the data. Tom Fishburne (“Marketoonist“) has even built an entire marking consulting business on visualization of concepts through the medium of cartoons.

Unfortunately, a huge number of poorly-designed infographics are now glutting our social feeds, serving mainly to promote commercial concerns without offering much real insight. The next generation of data visualization companies are striving to take back the infographic, according to The Cassandra Report. They want to make them simpler to create and consume, perhaps even doing some social good in the process. Periscopic is one such company that converts “raw data on topics like endangered species, sustainability, politics, and social justice into visual and interactive experiences that help people to empathize with information—not just consume it.”

There is a parallel between this articulation of data visualization and qualitative data– good qualitative reporting also invites the audience to empathize with the information, and by extension, with consumers. Do you have a favorite example of data visualization, or know of anyone who is producing particularly compelling infographics? Tell us about them in the comments.

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