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Infographics as Tools for the Mind

With so much emphasis and popularity around infographic design today, it makes sense to take a step back and look at infographics in the larger picture. Why do we use them? What is their purpose? Everyone loves a good infographic, they help us see patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed, they entertain and educate us, and are great tools. So today instead of thinking about infographics as pieces of design, I want to alter the lens through which we should view infographic and start thinking of them as tools for your mind.

Yesterday, I came across an interesting post from University of Miami visualization and infographic professor, Alberto Cairo. He believes that “Designing an infographic or a data visualization is an act of engineering” not one of design or art. Cairo believes “that an infographic is a tool in a very similar way that hammers, saws, and screwdrivers are tools: They are instruments we devise and build to extend our capacities beyond their natural limits, to accomplish feats that would be extremely difficult – or even impossible – if tried without their aid.” To prove Cairo’s point we turn again to the classic example of Dr. John Snow’s 1854 London cholera outbreak visualization.

Dr. John  Snow's Cholera Map

Dr. John Snow’s Cholera Map – Number of sick marked in black bars

Snow designed the above visualization not as a mere presentation of data, but instead as a visual argument. “He wanted to show the evidence for the relationship between two variables: the likelihood of dying of cholera and the distance between the places where victims lived and a source of water contaminated by Vibrio cholerae bacteria,” explains Cairo. Snow used the visualization to help identify the source of the cholera outbreak. If he hadn’t thought of using data visualization as a tool, and instead relied on presenting this data in a table his research would be useless. According to Cairo, “Patterns became noticeable only when they were arranged in a way the human brain could understand.” By focusing on using the visualization as a tool to help him ascertain the root cause of the problem, Snow was able to successfully pinpoint the cause of the outbreak.

Let’s look at one more example of focusing on using visualizations as a tool for the mind. The interactive New York Times graphic below is about how droughts affect crop production. The combination of stacked area charts, maps, and tables, offers an excellent overview of the multivariate data with many possibilities to play around with. The richness and depth of the interactive graphic would be difficult to achieve with other forms of encoding, such as mere copy, or a table. “Good graphics are not just displays you can extract information from, but devices to explore information with, says Cairo. This New York Times piece is a great example of this.

New York Times Drought Visualization

The principle that these infographics and data visualizations must be thought of as tools can be incredibly useful, but it also has some issues that designers need to be cognizant of. According to Cairo, “The most important one is that if forces you to stop thinking just as an artist, and to start acting more like some sort of craftsman.” Designers have to start caring first and for most about structure, precision, integrity, depth, and functionality before layout and design. However, “This doesn’t mean that infographics should not be beautiful,” writes Cairo. Quite the contrary. Cairo believes that if you want to attract readers, then “Aesthetics and elegance are crucial. But if your aesthetic choices get in the way of information, if they obscure your message or take away too much space that could have been used to better tell you story, you will be in trouble.”

So next time you’re designing or reading an infographic try altering the way you view it, and start thinking of them as tools for your mind.

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