The humble infographic, until recently the darling of online marketers everywhere, has been beset by a growing wave of apathy and fatigue over the last six to twelve months. With an entire ecosystem of hub sites springing up around the format, infographics have increasingly come to be seen as a “safe” option for marketers, guaranteed to generate at least a modicum of links and brand exposure for clients. Some elements of the blogging community, however, have become openly hostile to data visualisation, with some taking drastic steps to avoid any mentions of the subject reaching their inboxes.
— Charles Arthur (@charlesarthur) June 25, 2012
Column Five Media co-founder Jason Lankow recently described the shift in attitudes we have seen over the last year as “the death of the novelty of infographics, not a decline in their value”, suggesting that weariness is the result of over-familiarity rather than signifying the demise of the format itself. If this is indeed the case, then infographics remain an important prop in the digital marketer’s bag of tricks. But as with any magic act, the key to holding the audience’s attention performance after performance is constant re-invention; the routine must never be given the opportunity to stagnate nor can wonder be allowed to slip into indifference. But how are graphic design wizards fighting back against the chorus of disinterest?
The line between an animated infographic and a video is a blurred one but the change in format opens many options that are simply unavailable when operating in a static format. Traditional infographics tend to spread illustrations and figures across a relatively large area of screen space, creating a temptation for eyes to wander about aimlessly regardless of the designer’s original intent. Animation, by necessity, imposes a narrative structure on an infographic purely through controlling the order and speed at which the audience views images. This story-telling element and the ability to set a clear tone through voiceovers makes animated infographics very appealing to brands in a way that surpasses static visualisations. Foursquare’s “10 Million” infographic shows how even basic animation can make an otherwise staid graphic come alive.
While animation enriches the narrative tools available to infographic designers, interactivity allows users to personalise their viewing experience and make the story their own. The gradual move away from Flash to HTML5 has made adding interactive elements to illustrations easier than ever before while also tapping into the explosion in mobile and tablet computing; Apple’s iPhone and iPad don’t support Flash and news emerged over the weekend that Adobe are set to pull Flash Player from Android 4.1, suggesting that the platform’s days are numbered.
Infographics like Onlineschool.org’s highly impressive “The State of the Internet” hint at the potential interactivity brings to the medium. “The State of the Internet” uses a number of different techniques to manage the flow of a potentially overwhelming volume of information, including allowing users to choose exactly what data they want to visualise and a number of panels that are updated in real-time. That the designers have managed to compress so much information into such a relatively confined area of screen real estate yet make it both comprehensible and manageable should give pause for thought to even the most vociferous of infographic detractors.
Roll Your Own
Infographics are just one facet of a much wider trend that has seen the journalistic arts of the twentieth century adapting to meet the needs and challenges of the twenty-first century digital age. Modern computing power and cloud-powered collaborative tools have opened up new ways of working that were impossible less than a decade ago, collectively known as data-driven journalism. We now have the power to let raw data drive sensational news stories, like 2009’s UK parliamentary expenses scandal. Unfortunately, not all budding reporters have the technical and creative skills to crawl, analyse and visualise all the information at their fingertips.
— Armando Iannucci (@Aiannucci) June 16, 2012
In the last six months, a number of tools have sprung up that allow the layperson to create their own infographics. Most are in their infancy and offer only limited functionality but promise more advanced features in the future. Infographics portal Visual.ly recently launched a series of customisable templates that allow users to chart the history of a hashtag, stage a Twitter battle between rival accounts – perfect for visualising the recent Armando Iannucci vs. Alaster Campbell “WMD” spat – and more besides. It’s unlikely that any graphic designers will lose much sleep over DIY infographic services at this early stage but tools like Visual.ly’s are an important step in allowing ordinary internet users to manipulate large data sets.
The New Frontier
For all its current ubiquity, the infographic continues to evolve as a medium, embracing new technology and ways of presenting data. Animation, interactivity and user-generated content are the new frontiers for visualisation and when executed properly, show that the format still has the power to engage users en masse.