Seeking a simple visual representation of a complex concept is a popular sport these days, but the real goals can often be missed, says Peter Knight

The “hockey stick” graph helped millions understand climate change in the 1990s. But in an era of Big Data, will the use of infographics be enough to get people fired up to protect the planet?

A lot of people – including US president Barack Obama – are hoping so.

Infographics is the art of using pictures to explain complex data and information. Subway maps around the world are classic examples where the diagram bears little relation to the actual twists and turns of the track but the abstraction helps riders navigate the system.

It was not until the US climatologist Jerry Mahlman described a graph showing the rapid rise of temperatures in the latter part of the 1900s as a “hockey stick” – the blade of the “stick” representing the rapid rise – that the implications of climate change became real for most of us who find it difficult to grasp numbers bigger than 101.

But the hockey metaphor also accentuated the cultural pitfalls of using pictures to communicate. In the US, hockey is played on ice, not fields. Ice hockey involves whacking a small disc while trying to maim your opponents. An ice hockey stick has a blade that turns at a virtual 90-degree angle to the shaft, while a field hockey stick has a curve resembling a chopped-off U, almost like a shepherd’s crook.

So Americans immediately understood the visual description, while Australians, Brits, Indians and other nations that play field hockey, were imagining something a little different.

Not always so simple

Welcome to the wonderful world of infographics, where attempts at making data simple to understand can easily backfire.

This happened recently when a newspaper published an infographic illustrating rising temperatures with a cartoon figure grasping a huge red rod-like thermometer. Many interpreted the graphic in a sexual manner.

But infographics are rapidly growing in popularity. Nowhere is this more relevant than in getting people to understand politically sensitive statistics, like the fluctuating price of gasoline.

The Obama White House is using infographics to try to convince a sceptical American public that the president is not to blame for fast-rising gas prices. The White House website has some excellent graphics that explain how oil is refined and who makes the money.

Your daily diagram

By far the best producer of infographics is the much maligned USA Today – the newspaper you trip over when leaving your Hilton bedroom. USA Today started distilling information into visual nuggets long before the internet made it obligatory. Every day it publishes what it calls a snapshot, which presents a statistic in an appealing, pictorial way.

The White House is trying to do the same, taking its cue from the father of statistical visualisation, Yale professor Edward Tufte. Obama has drafted his help in communicating arcane government statistics to a doubting, and let’s face it, largely innumerate public.

Tufte is delightfully critical of sloppily produced infographics – what he calls “chartjunk”, where style subverts substance. His ideas and advice are widely used in Washington to help the electorate understand government statistics – or as critics would have, spin the truth with pretty pictures.

Californian-based Good magazine, a newish website and publication (plus a marketing consultancy), has pioneered the use of graphics in explaining sustainability. It produces regular flowcharts and pictograms to show how much we consume, waste and generally screw our world.

The artists at Good have been used by others, including Starbucks, to communicate corporate sustainability performance. Good does, on the whole, a good job, but its infographics are often more complex than the data itself. They are what Tufte would call chartjunk.

Lack of understanding

And herein lie the two fundamental problems of infographics. First, the designers tasked with interpreting data for numeric illiterates often find it difficult to understand the data themselves. A leading green blogger recently reblogged an infographic showing trash mountains in China, only to be lambasted by his readers for failing to notice that the numbers quoted in the graphic failed to add up.

Second, no matter how good the pictures, if people don’t want to understand, they simply won’t. There are many, many Americans who think climate change is a hoax and Darwin was sent by the devil. No matter how clever the White House infographics, Obama will always be to blame for getting hurt at the pump.

The hockey stick curve could very well have been a shepherd’s crook, for all that is has helped in persuading Americans that there is such a thing as climate change.

It seems a picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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