Beautiful, confusing, useless, the tightrope act of Infographics

It’s a tricky balancing act when visualising data, between getting your getting your point across and making something visually striking.

Last year the V&A held an exhibit – Decode: Digital Design Sensations –  where many data visualisations were displayed, simply as pieces of art.

This seems to be part of a trend for increasingly innovative, though undeniably weird designs (such as here and here)

Decorative visualisations often grace the pages of magazines such as WIRED, and Delayed Gratification do little other than to highlight the mass of information that is currently out there.

But is it a problem if the infographic becomes so beautiful and intriguing that it becomes a work of art itself?

As something of a film geek I got pointed in the direction of  the New York Times’  picturesque info graphic ‘The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Reciepts 1986-2008

It’s beauty led to the design winning the Best Of Show Award at the 2009 Malofiej International Infographics Awards.

While it looks amazing, however, it is almost impossible to extract any real meaning from it. What trends can you highlight from this? Where are the comparisons?

Can graphic designs can become so beautiful that they detract from the infographics original purpose?

Data Journalism should strive to help consumers understand patterns of data in a meaningful way so they can make decisions based on these findings.

If a complex graphic leaves a viewer more spell bound rather than informed then it has failed in its primary duty.

But used sparingly the infographic as art can be quite striking in its effect and the unravelling of the layers of over-complication can be quite satisfying. See here for another New York Times example.

Like I said there is a balance to be struck. But in journalism clarity of communication is vital it is better to heir on the side of simplicity.

Jim Grimwade, Director of Information Graphics at Conde Nast’s Traveler and Portfolio Magazine, in an article for Society for New Designs states the case perfectly:

“Let’s not lose sight of the end user in this. Unless we’re creating pieces for a gallery, everything in a graphic should work to help people make sense of complex information. Especially now, when we’re being bombarded with info from all sides….Lets… not add to the chaos

Information first, art second


About Sam Francis

Freelance journalist. Former MA Investigative Journalism student at City University, London. Lover of data, admirer of information, seducer of computers.
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2 Responses to Beautiful, confusing, useless, the tightrope act of Infographics

  1. Jer Thorp says:


    I appreciate the general sentiment of this post.

    But – did you just randomly pick samples from a web search, without trying even just a little bit to figure out what they represent?

    The graphic of mine that you showed as an ‘weird design’ is in fact a screenshot from a custom software tool that I built which allowed the designers of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City to arrange the nearly 3,000 victim names on the memorial, while respecting the wishes of next-of-kin for some names to be placed next to others. You can read more about it here:

    It doesn’t stand alone as a data visualization – and it wasn’t meant to. You do disservice to your underlying argument by picking examples that don’t represent what you think they represent.


    • Sam Francis says:

      Jer,It wasn’t a random google search but a test I set myself to see If I could understand the data infront of me on some of the more elaborate info graphics on sights like yours. Rather obvisouly I was mistaken in my coice of picture here, and I apologise for my misuse of the image.

      I have changed my post to avoid any future confusion.

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