Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Infographics are porn without the happy ending

Consider this image:

It’s taken from this article on Mashable about one year of the iPad.

This is what curl -I has to say about it:

The important line from that, for those who don’t really do the Unix command line, is “Content-Length”. This is how large the file is in bytes. 200,939 bytes.

Now, to show the complete superfluousness of infographics, I have expressed the same information in another format, namely plain text (Internet MIME type: text/plain) encoded in ASCII.

Here it is:

The iPad has been out a year.

Analysts thought it would sell 3.3 million units. It sold 14.8 million.

Oppenheimer & Co. predicts tablet shipments will grow from 15.1 million in 2011 to 115 million in 2014.

Apple has 90% of the market share.

Five simple sentences that almost anybody could understand. The wc utility on my computer tells me it is 245 bytes.

These 245 bytes of English text/plain transmits exactly the same amount of information as the 200,939 byte JPEG image and does so without making me want to kick someone in the dick.

If you wanted to catalogue the shit-eating complacency and pretentiousness of Web 2.0, infographics would be right up there with the damn TED conference and people who put “rockstar” on their business card.

Did someone really sit down one day and think “you know, unless we have the market share of the iPad illustrated as a pie chart shaped as an apple, people will think this statistic is too dry”? The story of the iPad is an interesting one: much, much more interesting than can be displayed in three factoids hastily put together in a crappy infographic. You don’t need an infographic to tell the story of a computer that is the size and form of a magazine. You need a writer.

Everyone keeps telling me that infographics are fine, and that I’m just getting stuck in Sturgeon’s Law. I keep hearing infographics designers turn up at design events talking about the awesomeness of infographics. But in my day to day life, I can’t remember ever seeing a good infographic. That is, I can’t remember ever seeing an infographic that made it worth the page taking even half a second longer to load.

Unlike words, infographics are unreadable on small screen devices. Infographics make information less accessible for blind people and others with visual impairments. Christ, I have near-perfect 20-20 vision and I struggle to read some of the goddamn too-hipster-by-half typefaces even the better infographic designers use. If you make an infographic, you are basically saying fuck you to blind people, fuck you to the Googlebot and often fuck you to people with colour-blindness. And you are definitely saying fuck you to people on slow connections. If you are paying £4 a megabyte to get data in Paris (yeah, I hate you too, Orange), putting an infographic where text could do the job isn’t just a giant fuck you but a waste of actual money. And by the time you notice, you can’t complain. If you are out in India and your only connection to the WWW is a phone we Westerners called shitty and threw away about three years ago, the infographic is completely inaccessible to you.

And if you are trying to help people understand information–a wholly laudable goal!–cutting off the poor, the blind and those on shitty connections is a bad way of doing it. The first step to understanding information is making it available. And text/plain or text/html is a much better way of doing it than wrapping it in a poncy graphic. At the very least, if you all still think infographics are still worth doing, bloody well work out how to make them accessible and provide text fallbacks. Or stop making infographics and work out how to produce mixed graphic/text layouts. Just because you’ve got worked out an awesome ripple effect for that pie chart doesn’t exempt you from accessible design principles like progressive enhancement.

Take this infographic. If you were actually trying to get information across, you could turn most of it into a web page, and then put the graph at the bottom as an SVG. There are plenty of ways you could make it look nice. An ‘infographic’ pretty much has to be an image–in this case, a JPEG (again, seriously? Did nobody teach infographics designers that line art and text is best as a PNG than a JPEG?). But if people could do away with the whole silly infographics fetish and just produce information, that information could sit quite happily in web pages, with the occasional image when necessary. Those web pages are a lot more accessible, have much smaller file sizes and have the ability to include the sort of metadata around them to make them indexable by Google, consumable by blind people and much more.

Now, I’ll grant you one thing. Some things can only be displayed graphically. Here’s an example:

If every infographic were to disappear and be replaced by a picture of a kitten (or better yet, a picture of one of my kittens), the world would probably be a better place. And it probably wouldn’t be any less informed. It’s like the lottery: you don’t actually improve your odds of winning much by buying a ticket. Similarly, you are about as likely to learn useful information about the iPad (or whatever the topic, really) by looking at a picture of my kitten as you are by looking at an infographic. The point of most infographics isn’t to actually convey information: they only convey how much cooler than you the designer is.

Infographics are what happens when Nathan Barley thinks he can do statistics. Let’s be honest: the only audience for them is other self-facilitating new media nodes. Please, make it stop. There is no excuse.