Infographics are like Mother’s Day cards

July 4, 2012


Design  / 

Stamen Design is the cover story of this month’s Icon Magazine. Well deserved. On infographics and the growing number of tools to make them:

Stamen finds inspiration everywhere, but Rodenbeck hopes that the public will stop conflating infographics with data visualization. “The rise of the infographic as a genre is a little depressing. Back when desktop publishing started, people were worried that there would be no more room for designers, that computers would do all the work for you. But this clearly didn’t turn out to be the case.” While someone without design training [or skill — E] could make use of desktop publishing to create a holiday card or office leaflet or company newsletter, the band at the top for good designers actually grew. In a similar way, he says, “infographics have become the mother’s day cards — the company newsletters — of data visualization.”

It’s like that with anything that involves creation really. Someone makes some software so that the computer can do some of the work for you, but it’ll never be able to do all the work. R can spit out graphics, but you still have to decide what bits of the output to use and interpret what’s in front of you. People find this out and what it takes to make something worthwhile when they try to do it themselves.

Whenever a new site pops up to make infographic creation a snap, my Twitter feed bubbles with gripes and scoffs. Once all those applications come out of beta though, I think we (the data folk) are still gonna be okay.


  • It was the same with the flurry of video-making and hosting tools and related things around the time Youtube got huge 5-10 years ago. People had exactly the same concerns – will it kill real film making? Will we drown in god-awful videos?

    And exactly the same thing happened as is happening now in this field:
    – There’s more room for manoeuvre for the able people at the top. A more receptive and aware public and industry fuels demand, and a broader base of people dabbling in the field means more innovation and experimentation which can be picked up, improved on and made work by the people who know what they’re doing
    – The rubbish sinks to the bottom, the good stuff floats to the top. As the amount of rubbish increases, it loses its novelty value and becomes less intrusive, not more

    5-10 years on, demand for competent film-makers is higher than ever, and people approach short films with a more nuanced, critical eye. There is an unbelievable sea of miserable me-too junk as well, but none of us need worry about it because we’ll almost never see it.

    Most new types of media follow a similar pattern: labour saving technology plus exciting innovations leads to an explosion of interest, followed by a shocking deluge of dross that at first is popular due to novelty value, but slowly sinks to the bottom – plus, a steadily increasing range of quality material and genuine innovation that floats to the top. I’m pretty sure when the first novels were produced, it followed the same pattern.

  • Jeff Beddow July 4, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I have been involved in the visualization field since the early ’80s, and tend to agree with you.

    No tool can ask a question. Any fool can provide answers no one is interested in. Talking about the process of visualization is like talking about penmanship, instead of the writer’s message, however. At some point, the “penmanship” of visualization will be replaced in the commercial realm by automation. Your own work provides templates that will become increasingly automated, just like Ken Burn’s transitions from The Civil War video series became menu choices in Final Cut Pro.

    The quality of messages, however, will still depend upon the asking of good or great questions. That will never be automated, because no one except a Computer Science graduate student will ever care about questions that machines can be programmed to ask.

    • I agree with everything except the last point: “no one except a Computer Science graduate student will ever care about questions that machines can be programmed to ask”. Programming is a type of penmanship. As barriers to entry drop, less computer expertise will be needed to ask these kind of questions, and we’ll see people with more of a journalistic or investigative mindset asking these kind of questions. It’s already happening.

      • Jeff Beddow July 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm

        Thanks. On that last point I meant “questions computers can ask by themselves”, not “questions people can ask using computers.” Seems like a minor distinction perhaps, but it is pretty important.

        I fully support whatever people can do in good faith. I am very wary of substituting algorithms for human judgment when lives, reputations, etc are at stake.

        I guess we are all agreeing with Nathan.