Infographics v. Data Visualization, and Other Thoughts on Horse Racing

A client recently wanted to produce a data visualization that could show the impact of a news event (such as an athletics championship or presidential departure) on fundraising. The team came up with a pretty good image that showed the relevant news events on a timeline, “weighted” for how positive or negative they were; inflation-adjusted fundraising dollars; and two indicators of external financial conditions (the S&P 500 Index and recession years). The story was clear: Good news has some positive effects and bad news some short-lived negative effects, but external financial factors matter most of all.

But the editorial team rejected the graphic, insisting that if it took more than five seconds to understand, it was useless. The design team was taken aback, until I explained their mistake: the editors didn’t want a data-rich graphic that allowed for data exploration, they wanted a design element, a flashy way to show some numbers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Scoreboard v. the Racing Form

Scoreboards are, by design, flashy, attention-grabbing displays. Basic boards like this one present just four pieces of information, making them an effective way to quickly convey the most important numbers and facts. The viewer sees precisely what they need to know to understand the status of the game, and nothing more.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have this racing form. It contains literally hundreds of pieces of information – and about just a single horse.  Armed with this data, even the casual bettor can have a complex view of the field and make educated decisions based on past performance, the jockey, the trainer, and many other data points that help develop a deep understanding of facts that may influence the outcome of the race.

So what’s the difference?

An infographic, put simply, combines information with a graphic. The key word here is information. And how to we get information? By processing and interpreting data. Google the phrase philanthropy infographic and you will find scores of design elements that usually contain a few numbers and facts. The example here uses a substantial amount of ink to communicate just eight numbers, using graphics of gift boxes, dollar bills, and logos to reinforce what types of information are being conveyed. It’s using an awful lot of ink to communicate 7 numbers—it’s punchy, but it’s not really “data.”

A data visualization needs to meet another standard. Part of that standard should be what Edward Tufte refers to as data density. A reader is generally quite capable of absorbing a great of information, even if it takes a moment to read and evaluate. Another component is comparability: a good data visualization will allow the reader to compare different pieces of data and use it to draw conclusions and answer questions.

The map below is a simple but excellent example of a data visualization that meets both criteria. Literally hundreds of data points were used to create the map – the locations of countries, the percentage of expenditures – and it clearly presents any number of points, and raises some questions: the United States is a clear outlier; why is Peru spending so much more on food than its neighbors; Southern Europeans, even in highly industrialized Italy, are spending more than those in Northern Europe.

Know which to use, and when.

Infographics and data visualizations can be excellent ways to communicate with a reader – as long as you know the difference. When trying to convey complex data, try using a data visualization that allows for comparison. For its part, the infographic is a fine way to jauntily present some facts by dressing up a few sentences worth of information.

I leave you with a beautiful example of a data visualization. Charles Minard’s carte figurative of Napoleon’s march on Russia simultaneously displays the army’s location, the number of soldiers, the direction of their march, the date, and the temperature. The graphic tells a tremendous story of an army of 422,000 soldiers dwindling to 10,000, and yet also presents highly specific details such as the devastating crossing of the Berezina River in sub-zero temperatures: of the 50,000 soldiers who attempted to cross, only 28,000 made it to the other side. Clean and elegant, it is often considered the finest data graphic ever produced.

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