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Unmana Datta

Eight Reasons Infographics Are Overrated

By: Unmana Datta | July 2, 2013 | 
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Infographics are overrated

By Unmana Datta

Infographics have been around for a while now, and I’m afraid they are here to stay.

Afraid?

Overrated?

You might have gathered I’m not a fan.

Here’s why infographics drive me crazy.

Infographics are Overrated

1.  The lazy marketer’s argument: The text isn’t really text.

You have text in an infographic, but it’s in an image file, so it gives you no SEO benefit. As a marketer, creating an infographic means I need to write snappy, interesting copy… but it won’t be picked up by search engines. What a waste.

Also, if I like a line of text in an infographic you created, I can’t copy and quote it on my blog or Twitter (with attribution, of course). I have to write it out laboriously, and usually, I won’t make the effort. Hey, I’m lazy. (Or I can share the whole thing, but sometimes I don’t want to do that.)

2. The pedant’s argument: The graphics don’t always make sense.

In many infographics (though not the best ones), the graphics are forced into visual representation in a way that isn’t strictly logical or accurate. If it doesn’t make sense as a graph, don’t force it. Venn diagrams and pie charts aren’t just circles, you know.

3. The Web 2.0 argument: It’s a throwback to the old school.

I thought we had moved away from PDFs. They just don’t make as much sense in most contexts, because web pages and blog posts are easier to share, and have much more features built in.

4. The control freak’s argument: There are no standard sizes or shapes.

PDFs at least are useful if you want to print them out and read (if you still do that). Infographics on the other hand…

You have to click on most to enlarge them enough to be able to read. There are no page breaks, which makes them a pain to print.

5. The user’s argument: They are difficult to read.

Okay, I already said that. And I admit not all are difficult to read. But so often when I’m trying to read one, I find myself leaning closer to the screen, and squinting, and clicking on it to make it bigger. Sorry, unless it’s telling me how to write three blog posts in an hour without drinking coffee, I’m going to close the window.

6. The mobile user’s argument: They don’t work on mobile devices.

Try making sense of an infographic on your phone. Not fun. With so many people viewing your site on their phones, why would you make it so difficult for them?

7. The snob’s argument: They are ugly.

I know, that’s like pointing to one blinking flash-ridden website, and saying websites give me a headache. But really, there’s something about infographics that seems to bring out script fonts and garish colors.

8. The incompetent marketer’s argument: They’re hard!

Yeah, so maybe that’s the thing. I suck at design. If I had to create an infographic, I’d need a brilliant designer and a few days off. So I’m jealous of all you amazingly creative people, (the very few) who can actually make a funny, informative infographic.

In the meantime, if I have to combine images and text, I’ll use a slidedeck.

But if you have to create infographics, do me a favor and make sure of the following, will you?

  1. The info you want to present makes sense displayed in visual form. You’re not just taking a string of numbers and thinking of interesting shapes to fit them into.
  2. You are a good graphic designer, or know one who is yours to command (and be really, really honest about the “good” part). Even if you’re using a template or something, make sure it’s a nice template.
  3. You create it in a user-friendly form, with easy-to-read text (large, readable fonts!), and a color that contrasts sharply with the background (and if I can get away with being even more demanding, dark text on a light background, please).

And then send me a link so I can torture myself envying your creative skills.

About Unmana Datta


Unmana Datta is the Co-founder of Markitty, a tool that recommends actions to improve your online marketing. She writes about marketing on the Markitty blog and answers to @Unmana on Twitter.

40 comments
biggreenpen
biggreenpen

I have been sitting here trying to think of something insightful or inquisitive to say about infographics and .... I've got nothin'. It wasn't that long ago that I had to ask someone to explain what makes an infographic an infographic. Now that I know, I suppose I put them in a category of "helpful to get across the broad ideas of the concept that is being presented moreso than for in-depth data." For some reason, infographics that use human shapes to represent whatever that data is kind of bugs me (the little girl who is half red doesn't get as much calcium every day at the little girl next to her who is 60% red. Pity. For example). There is one that comes to mind for an organization I do volunteer work with .... and I guess the fact that it has stuck with me mentally since I first saw it a year ago means something ..... it probably fails a few (or all) of the 8 points, but if my question is "what countries are visited by CFCA travelers and which is visited the most," the infographic does that pretty well: http://blog.cfcausa.org/2011/11/07/handy-infographic-about-cfca-mission-awareness-trips/.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

Since I'm in the data viz / infographics business these days I can't resist chiming in..

Two thoughts: 

1. You are right. There is a lot of crap out there, and your criticisms are thoughtful and accurate. 

The truth is, great information design is not about making anything "pretty"........it's about using beautiful design to turn the lightbulb on / share / provoke meaningful insights. There are lots of people jumping on the bandwagon who don't really care about this concept. Fans of Portlandia will recognize this as the "put a bird on it" phenomonen. I think the Oatmeal's comic is applicable here too... http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell

2. Many marketers/comms people are lazy and/or not interested in the core reasons for information design. I have conversations regularly with people who just want to do something cool, or have infographics replace their SEO strategy, analytics, etc.... Data visualization & infographics work because the core elements are smart, and relevant. Storytelling + insight + design work together, and symbiotically. Of course if you aren't thoughtful, or skilled, at any or all of those things then you're bound to create stuff that wastes peoples' time. 

I should also add that there are many kinds of information design (motion/animation pieces, interactive, etc...) and not all of it is the (admittedly) played out static infographic that scrolls a mile long. 



Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

I agree with everyone of those reasons -- and I'd add that people do sloppy work -- selectively take stats from different studies, out of context, to make a point.  So these are often bad info. 

And yet, they usually perform well.  If infographics aren't in our tool kits, we're all just crazy. 

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

Our team has found them useful in communicating complex info, like applying for college financial aid. But we accompany each with a separate page of more detailed text or a web address that provides additional information online. Thanks for sharing your frustration in such an informative way. :)

ImMarkBernhardt
ImMarkBernhardt

Some infographiles may simply try to present too much in one graphic -- thus tripping most of these pet peeves. USA Today has long published creative infographics to complement stories in print (you know, the old-school "paper" in "newspaper"). And there's the key: the graphic enhances the story. It doesn't tell the story. (See @RobBiesenbach's comment.)

Blocks of text should be in the blog post, article or other page where the infographic resides. Consider how better to present visually, if the graphic takes a lot of explaining. If you want to increase the chances those who see the shared infographic read the story that goes with it, include a (shortened) URL at the bottom of the infographic, pointing back to the page.

dbvickery
dbvickery

#6 really tries my patience. A lot of infographics do not work well with tablets, and DEFINITELY not with the small form factor of a phone. Good point on #1.

Of course, they are eye candy in the social stream - accuracy is irrelevant as long as it's a pretty picture, right? 

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

Love the good ones, am annoyed at the bad ones. I'm no expert at what an infographic is supposed to be, but to my mind it should convey information visually, right? Some of them have so much text that I'm not even sure why they bothered making it an infographic. (Well, I have an idea why -- they believe they've got to have an infographic.)

I think you should be able to just look at it and understand what's going on without having to read a ton or think really hard about it. Or am I wrong?

KeithKnowles
KeithKnowles

I think #2 is my issue - they don't work for me because they're usually poorly developed. Yes, they're designed and pretty but if I don't "get it" instantly I'm moving on and most of the time I just don't get it. 

John McTigue
John McTigue

I collect them on Pinterest. Very handy for preparing blogs and decks. You can always Google the stats to get references.

Steven Edward Streight
Steven Edward Streight

I dislike them. They typically do not cite or link to sources for their statistics.

Unmana
Unmana

@biggreenpen I actually like this one! It doesn't have tiny text or numbers! 

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

This is great, @JoeCardillo. To me, part of what you're saying is, "be strategic" or, more simply, "have a point." Which applies to every gee-whiz communications tactic that comes along. We need a viral video! We need to put something up on Slideshare! We need to get on Vine, Pinterest, etc., etc. All of it putting the tactic before the purpose, instead of first asking the question, "What do we want to accomplish?" then figuring out the tactic that's right for the goal.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

Oh, and hey, in the interest of not just complaining, here are 5 things you can do to create / use infographics that don't suck:

1. SEO - if this is your thing, steal concept from Youtube. They've built a structure that is intuitive (descriptions, tags, URLs, linking to relevant content). Nothing on the interwebz exists by itself, neither should your infographic. 

2. Tell a story. 

3. Get some complex data, ask a bunch of questions about it, and then figure out what insights are useful. Here's a freebie: "Why is PR dying"

4. Hire a great designer who's wheelhouse is actually information/data viz. It makes a difference. 

5. Do something different with format. Do an interactive piece, or a video/motion graphic. Or think about how to best use/repurpose a standard static piece (I like what Startup Weekend did with static piece we created for them recently, click "view impact report" http://startupweekend.org/2013/04/11/impact-report-see-how-you-changed-the-world-in-2012/ )

Unmana
Unmana

@JoeCardillo Thank you for your insightful comment that my flippant, snarky post probably didn't deserve. I agree with everything you say, and of course, I was referring to the mile-long static infographic here.

Unmana
Unmana

@Frank_Strong You're right. I probably should get over my aversion (and laziness) and make one. But given my design skills, I'd end up creating something really ugly.

Unmana
Unmana

@dbvickery Actually, I like them best on the iPad since you can expand them easily... if I'm on my laptop I find myself leaning forward to make out what's written.

Reading most of them on a phone would be impossible, though.

Unmana
Unmana

@RobBiesenbach Yes! Why don't we get this? Am I just stupid?

So you mean I *don't* have to make one, right?

Unmana
Unmana

@John McTigue Yeah, I know a lot of people like them. My biggest problem is that I find most of them difficult to read. And I guess I'm more verbal than visual. Thanks for reading!

Unmana
Unmana

@Steven Edward Streight Yes! Bring on the hate! 

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@RobBiesenbach @JoeCardillo Totally. That's a great question to ask, and the starting point for everything that comes after. 

The storytelling piece is so much bigger than people think, too. If you don't mind, can I ask you a question? You've been in the professional storytelling biz for a long while, how do you explain the importance of the story to clients / what do they have the hardest time understanding?

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@Unmana @JoeCardillo Not at all Umana, I get as annoyed as anyone by the junk content out there. And I will say that's the joy for those of us who either have real, quantifiable structural and social capital at a medium/big organization or are at a small shop, we get to say something's stupid when it's stupid =)

ImMarkBernhardt
ImMarkBernhardt

@Unmana You're welcome. Infographics are tricky to produce well. They benefit from skill sets spanning design and analytic backgrounds -- a left-brain/right-brain sort of thing. Speaking for myself, I'm more analytic than creative. So I have graphic designers on staff, to help wrap complex (or even simple) function in aesthetic form.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@Unmana @dbvickery Making visual content that's not responsive or at the very least considers mobile/tablet is like pouring money in the ground. 

I am normally very polite about this sort of thing, but truthfully there are a lot of comms/marketing professionals who don't understand format and demand things that aren't realistic, or sensible (tip of the hat there to the Oatmeal comic I mentioned above). 

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@JoeCardillo Wow, that's a good (and big) question! If I want a client or an audience to understand the power of stories, I tell a story -- specifically a story about how a story made a big impact, if that makes sense. I also present some data, like results of reports and studies on the power of story, but what really grabs them is the story itself.

As for what's hardest for them to understand, I would say a couple of things. As you indicated, many don't understand what a story actually is -- they mistake an anecdote or a mere observation for a story. So I go back the the three-part structure I talked about in my post here. And for some leaders, they're reluctant to tell personal stories, out of modesty or false modesty or just fear of opening up.

But I'd go back to misunderstanding as the biggest roadblock. They think they can just inundate audiences with undifferentiated information and mounds of data without ever giving them a reason to care.

Unmana
Unmana

@ImMarkBernhardt Oh yes, I agree. That's why I wouldn't dare create one and inflict it on others. :p

Unmana
Unmana

@dbvickery I know, right? Where's the user experience in all this? It makes me feel like I'm poring over an old-style paper map... and at least those were fun. @JoeCardillo 

dbvickery
dbvickery

@JoeCardillo @Unmana Well, the laptop seems to be my best experience with infographics. Some even have used Flash...which wouldn't operate on an iOS device.

The best infographics do not require a lot of zooming in/out to actually read the text. I've seen graphics on a large screen that still required a lot of zooming in to read the text. Then you are stuck doing a lot of pan navigation.

Stick to the adage - Keep it Simple.

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