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The Infographic: One Big, Fat Oxymoron

By Ken Magill

9/11/12

The biggest contradiction in terms in publishing today has to be the so-called infographic.

For one thing, infographics ask designers to do something the vast majority of them are not wired to do: communicate information with symbols, graphs and sparse copy.

Over the years I have worked with dozens of designers. I can’t think of one I haven’t personally liked. Wait a minute. I just thought of one. Okay, of all the designers I have worked with, I have disliked a grand total of one.

There’s another really low number in the dozens of designers with which I have worked. The number who has thought in terms of actually communicating is three.

The rest—the vast majority—viewed print as colors on the page in need of balance and beauty. San serif type doesn’t dominate web page design because it’s more readable than serif alternatives. It dominates because it’s cleaner looking.

As editor of dot-com trade publication iMarketing News I had a standing rule for the designers who laid it out: “When you think a headline looks right, increase the point size 15 percent.”

I was in a constant—albeit friendly—battle with design to stop handing back pages with floating headlines. I didn’t want headlines that whispered. I want headlines that jumped off readers’ desks and said: “Pick me up!”

In an absurd example of designer myopia, an editorial colleague once told me a story of how he had moved a story through to layout. The piece came back with a request: “Please change the lead sentence so it begins with an ‘O.’”

This is not aimed at bashing designers. It is, however, to point out that while they think visually, many don’t think about communicating visually.

As a result, infographics tend to be visually appealing but a communications mess in which the eye has no idea where to start.

This is also not to say information can’t be presented effectively with graphics.  Edward Tufte has made a career out of instructing people how to present information graphically.

But most designers aren’t Edward Tufte. Want some evidence? Check out the infographics on this site and this site. Notice all the teeny tiny, reversed, san serif type. The people who designed these infographics aren’t interested in communicating concepts. They just want their stuff to look cool.

It’s a disease that is rampant in infographics. Most of them are simply cases of jumbled designer self-indulgence.

Infographics are also generally too big. And that problem will only get worse.

My desktop computer screen is large enough to display two 8 ½-inch by 11-inch pages full-size, side by side. In order to make most infographics readable on it, I have to blow them up well beyond its generous confines.

With smart-phone Internet usage soaring, the infographic is increasingly a non-user-friendly way to deliver information—that is, when they deliver information at all.

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