Week Four – Rara Avis in Terris Nigroque Simillima Cygno
Data don't lie.

Week Four – Rara Avis in Terris Nigroque Simillima Cygno

Six days to delve into an incredibly complex topic, so this can only be seen as a first pass at this topic. I will try to play fair though…get it, get it… Playfair?

I have no issues with Infographics. I like them even. they can be very helpful, and yes, Mr McCandless, they can be beautiful.

I have to say that first, because, obviously, I am going to spend a large part of this entry questioning their reason for existence and even their name. And by the end, it might be a mere semantic issue and difference between the words ‘data’ and ‘information’.

I don’t really like quotes because to quote the social observer J. Oliver – ‘Quotations, the karaoke of ideas’ however, in this instance, they provide an almost opposing approach in both volume and quantity, and yet, have followed a similar trajectory, as well as providing a lead-in into my next point.

“When one man dies it’s a tragedy. When thousands die it’s statistics.”
– Some guy called Joe

Except there is no actual proof that Stalin said that, he may have, and there are plenty of other possible variations by other less murderous candidates, but does it matter who said it? It is so popular because we get it, we understand it immediately, and it works not just for deaths.

Quotes are perhaps a version of verbal infographics, a summation of data and beliefs into an easily digestible soundbite, which I can brandish as a weapon in any argument without knowing or caring about its context. (Or misattributing, misquoting, and paraphrasing them if you are Harriet in week 3’s lecture.)

Could it be that we are not really equipped to deal with a lot of abstract information? Assuming our biological evolution has not kept up with our advances with technology, our bodies are operating with a system designed for short-term and acute information, that animal is dangerous, that fruit is poisonous, that one is tasty, that signifies water is close by etc.

Our brains, our understanding seem to work at a human and clan scale both in time and size, we struggle to think beyond our friends and family or beyond the present and very near future today; the repercussions of that additional drink on my performance tomorrow, the extra portion of dessert on my waistline, the use of cars and planes on the world of my descendants. There is a good chance that by 2050 we will be in the final battle for survival, and yet, finishing this blog post is more important to me – it will be a wistful memory as I lay dying in the merciless sun from the injury inflicted by marauding para-military water bandits.

Infographics could justify their existence for this exact reason, humans struggle with vast amounts of data, so they must be distilled into visual patterns to aid understanding and I would assume lead to better decisions for me, and my extended clan. There are certainly plenty of examples of data collection and mapping that have led to discoveries, changes and life-altering decisions

If Al Shalloway wants to use the campfire as a metaphor for visualisations, should that metaphor be pushed further to include how we would tell and share stories around a campfire, an early version of the dinner table; stories were there to transmit information and knowledge. In many ways, infographics are the fire blanket suffocating the campfire with their dogmatic and unassailable truth. Data has no information and information has no story and yet it is stories we are hard-wired to remember not pie-charts.

This tells us nothing about the result, the quality, the excitement or meaning of a Premiership game. A percentage is already an abstraction, do I really need a chart to understand 42 vs 58?

Visualisation of data can, of course, help understanding in many instances but doesn’t it also obfuscate the actual story. the above graphics don’t say anything about how possession was held, gained, or used. Just because a picture can metaphorically paint a thousand words, doesn’t mean it always does. Sometimes, a hundred words can paint a thousand pictures.

Image result for vietnam war memorial
Is the Vietnam War Memorial an infographic? It informs, communicates, and has an emotional impact, and it certainly has had an impact on decisions as the United States has not been in a war since then.

As stated infographics can be useful, but they can also masturbatory; just because you can visualise something, doesn’t mean one should. looking at an infographic about the Pacific Gyre might be interesting, but it buries the lead…We will all be dead soon.

Burying the lead (or lede)

As stated infographics can be useful, but they can also masturbatory; just because you can visualise something, doesn’t mean one should, which would be fine, but sometimes a graph might actually diminish the story. And it certainly diminishes the impact on an individual level looking at an infographic about the Pacific Gyre might be interesting, but it buries the lead…We will all be dead soon! but there we are, ordering more sushi for lunch before returning to our agency to create a chart about the oceans’ health. Greta Thunberg isn’t walking around with a pie chart and rightly so. Events, protests, and movements can be far more expressive and influential than a statistic. knowing that 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted is hard to hear, hearing from someone that you know that she has been sexually assaulted is completely different (Liam Neeson notwithstanding). Infographics can dehumanise stories. Both in the sense that it is too much information and in the sense that the individual cannot see the impact on themselves. #metoo doesn’t use graphs, just stories, anecdotes, witnesses, and basically a simple ‘#’ to mobilise, support, propagate, share, and spread, and I would argue it has had more of an impact than any pie chart could have – mainstream media has helped this of course and it probably is not perfect in its approach and effects.

Similarly, we all nod knowingly when told that women earn less than men (and then have a debate with spurious facts about why that is). An infographic would show this quite easily, and an infographic can further break down race and age in the inequality, and it might be graphics like these that keep the issue alive and allow for progress to be made. but having an Equal Pay Day (November 10th in the UK) a day after which women stop earning for the rest of the year might be a way of telling that story. Although, actually stopping payments to all male employees on that date might have an even more acute impact

Swan colour graphic. A perfect example of the predictive nature of infographics.

If all you have is an infographic hammer, then everything looks like a nail chart

If you want to be a communicator, a transmitter of information, i.e. a designer, you cannot be an infographic designer, sometimes an infographic works, but if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail pie chart. So designers, proper designers, are responsible. If there is information to be transmitted, it is not our job to sharpen our infographic pencils, but to understand what the story is and then find the appropriate way to convey it.


Emotions last longer than data do. There is no emotion in data, which is the way it should be. However, while humans can be rational, and designers use a rational and objective process to produce work, however, the viewers and users of said work react to it primarily in an emotional way. That means that data can be to dry or they can be too 350-million-pounds/per-year- to-the-EU.

Image result for 350 million pound bus
How did that work out?

Application to the individual and Postmodernism

Citizen is an app that alerts us to crime and events around us; this gives us information and it could aid in decisions about where we live and what we do, except it at best creates fear. I received four alerts this week about fires that almost interrupted my violin practice, and yet, this morning, with no alert from the app, the apartment below me was seemingly on fire. An alert would have been great, but wasn’t the smell of smoke more meaningful? All of which is to say, all infographics are in the past, which is fine, because we can often see trajectories to help us understand the future.

The masturbatory nature of some infographics (beautiful or not) may be due to the advent of pocket computers that actually allow us the user to have statistics for ourselves. Data can become more meaningful if it is customised to the individual, how many steps I took, how many floors I climbed, ow many shootings happened within 500 metres of my apartemnt..and all in real-time. Apps are doing to infographics what photography did to painting. Of course, infographics are becoming more like art, and I am all for it, there is beauty in data, there is sublimity in a generative work of coordinates.

Now we all have the ability to create graphs and statistics based on genuine or spurious data. With the advent of the internet, Adobe, and Powerpoint, everything can be shown as a graph, and as the below graph shows it has had a detrimental effect on the veracity and usefulness of infographics.

Infographics are all lies.

But this is also a good thing, we can now venture beyond the inflexibility of centralised data and create graphics for individuals – I took 6,852 steps last Thursday and slept 5hours and 20 minutes. I am not sure how that helps me, but it is certainly more interesting to me than the average steps per day taken globally Or is it? Could comparing my output to those around me (literally or globally) change my behaviour and increase my steps.

The Guardian’s The Counted is an interesting piece of journalism for a number of (perhaps obvious) reasons. 1093 individuals were killed by police in the US, in 2016. A high percentage of these were non-white and many unarmed. There are clear racial reasons for this. some of which is just racist, homicidal police and some may be much more complex reasons. It is less of an infographic and more of a collection of stories. It also asks for help from readers to report instances. Is there an increase in police killing innocent, unarmed citizens, or are we just finally – due to the ubiquity of pocket-computers and video cameras – seeing these instances? And does seeing just one or two of these encounters and killings have a more meaningful impact with the viewer compared to a chart showing that the number actually dropped by 53 from 2015 (Good job for being less shooty, police.)

Infographics, like news can also give the impression of more bad news when in fact the e.g. crime rates are going down, but the reporting is going up

Ultimately, my point is quite simply this: You shouldn’t decide on the method of information transmission before understanding the information, the intent, and the audience. It might be information graphics, it might be a pie chart, but it might be that it should be a movement, an event, a store, a campaign. Surely infographics should have a goal, the goal should determine the medium, whatever that medium is, that can be seen as an infographic.

The only people waxing lyrically about the value of infographics online or in TED talks are infographic designer. Why choose a tool before knowing what the assignment is? Why a specialist doctor before diagnosis?

But back to the first image. It is a genuine infographic. Those are the data, but there is no context there. I am not complaining about any lack of feedback, I am not saying it is too much, too little or just right, I am just displaying data, not context, not information, not a story or explanation. But I could also show it like this:

All of the above graphics show my words compared to those of feedback, but now it looks – well – different, more complex while also harder to read.

They say nothing about the quality of feedback, they say nothing about the expected level of feedback, they say nothing about how I feel about the situation. They don’t include any tutorials, webinars, or peer feedback. They are not very good infographics. Partly it might have something to do with the data.

Phillip Nelson came up with the terms Search Goods and Experience Goods (Credence was added too) to describe different types of goods and services, perhaps infographics need to also look at a classification of data. Perhaps not all data can be easily visualised, perhaps not all data can be expected to lead to insights about future developments.

Just like quotations and memes, infographics can perhaps take a complex world and by removing any context, fortune-cookie-ise it to an extent that the information is either ambiguous or open to (incorrect) interpretation. If (graphic) communication is Encode-Transmit-Decode then we probably need to be very careful in both the encoding and transmission parts.

This week’s challenge

For a number of reasons in the meandering writing above, I wanted to try to make data also the graphic, and make it personal/individual, human-level and visceral. So I cut a template Friday night, and each day at 10 am I spray adhesive through this stencil in order to collect particulates and dirt on my balcony over a week.

There are two versions.
The first version, I spray each strip daily adding a new one each day, so on Monday spray mount goes on Saturday’s, Sunday’s, and Monday’s strips so that by the end of the week, the Saturday that has been exposed the longest should be the darkest.
The other version each strip is spayed daily then covered up to see if there are different levels of pollution depending on the day of the week, the darkest one at the end of the week indicating the day of the week with the highest pollution.

Obviously, the six or seven strips are pretty boring and the shapes could have been more interesting

Facts vs stories
lies, damn lies and statistics
66.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot
all data is open to interpretation
are designers responsible

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