Infographics vs. Data Visualization

People keep asking what the difference is between data visualization and infographics. Since I’m not completely satisfied with the available answers I thought I could return to the subject and write my own.

First, you have to recognize  that you can’t compare them because they are not at the same level. Things get much simpler if we assume that data visualization is an umbrella concept that means some kind of visual transformation of some underlying data. This transformation takes advantage of the human perception to reduce cognitive overload. That’s a fact, not a goal.

You can’t say much more. The goals, the tools, the design, the visual objects, the interaction model, are all irrelevant to define what data visualization is. But, like all umbrella concepts, it groups several other concepts where these dimensions become relevant: infographics, business visualization, visual statistics, data art. And those are the concepts we should compare.

Let’s look at one of the dimensions that more clearly define each group: the conscious use of design and aesthetics.

datavis-authors

On the left there is a group of visual statisticians like Cleveland and Tukey, and I’ll add Bertin to the mix (yes, I know he was a cartographer). They are not aware, don’t care or simply don’t pay much attention to graphic design. Their designs reflect that.

When you walk towards the center you’ll find a large group of functionalists. They are aware of the functional aspects of design and they want to use it that way (for example, they love pre-attentive processing). It is a heterogeneous group, and the more you walk to the right, the more important  aesthetics become. The first author you’ll encounter will be Stephen Few and the last one will be Alberto Cairo. Tufte is also here, you’ll see him before meeting A. Cairo. You’ll find me here too, between Few and Tufte.

Say goodbye to Alberto Cairo and say hello to the designers, where function becomes decoration (that’s not necessarily bad). They like to play with the data but they don’t take it too seriously.  This means that they’ll happily sacrifice some degree of effectiveness to original, aesthetically pleasing designs, but they will not call them “art”. They will also try to convince you that data visualization is what they do. You’ll find David Mccandless here, obviously, and a multitude of smaller characters, including all those default-loving Excel users.

Please don’t get me wrong: David Mccandless and the Excel users look very similar from this point of view because this is a single dimension. It’s obvious that if we add a second dimension (“originality”) he’ll move away from them (and they will remain in the “canned effects” group).

And then on the far right you’ll find the last group, the artists (I like several of them, can’t choose one). Decoration becomes art and effectiveness doesn’t make sense. Data is just another object the artist plays with to find Beauty. Flowing Data has a good list of artistic visualization projects.

Stephen Few wrote about this and he says:

… the goal that data be visualized in a way that leads to understanding. Whatever else it does, it must inform. If we accept this as fundamental to the definition of data visualization…

He also wrote in a different post:

Therefore, a data visualization should only be beautiful when beauty can promote understanding in some way without undermining it in another. Is beauty sometimes useful? Certainly. Is beauty always useful? Certainly not.

So, Few believes that if, and only if, a visualization  is made to inform and help understanding then it is data visualization. I agree with that if, and only if, we define data visualization by its purpose.

I prefer a definition that focus on the “what” and lets subgroups of users to define their own “what for”. Data visualization is a federation, not an empire.

What about you? Where can I find you in the diagram above?

 PS: Designers, please make up your mind.

8 thoughts on “Infographics vs. Data Visualization

  1. Hi, great post.

    – I’m in the gap as you have it between Alberto and David –

    It’s a fair nuance to mention, visual communicators think about function and form equally.

    I don’t think it’s a question of ‘Infographics vs. Data Visualization’ either, it’s like comparing a microscope to a television! Both show you something but their purpose isn’t the same.

    I agree with your ‘what?’ distinction, which can’t be separated from ‘what for?’ in practice.

    Your diagram could feature audience. I use dataviz for exploring numbers so I am the audience. Sometimes that gives me an insight or inspiration to create an explanatory piece – for another audience.

    Dataviz doesn’t always make good communication. It’s often more a means than an end itself, can look quite dry, suited to specialists or experts.

    Infographics might resonate more because people like stories and visual stimuli. But at their worst they can be visually gratuitous or take liberties with data.

    I choose the best approach for the task at hand and try to keep balanced.

    Thanks, Chris.

  2. Nice little snapshot Jorge.

    I’m guessing you are aware of Cole Nussbaumer and her excellent blog. I’d probably slot her in between Tufte and Few as well, would you agree ?

    Personally I’m just to the right of Tufte.

  3. Hi Jorge,

    Another great post, and interesting twitter discussion.

    I’m reminded of an old expression/ working definition from the days of the quality movement, defining quality as ‘fitness for purpose.’

    As a creator of visualizations, I’m very much geared by that. If the purpose is truth, or something close to it, then the lessons of the stricter functionalists and statisticians can be taken to heart. If the purpose is art, then McCandless, Kate Mclean, and a host of others have it right.
    (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2204887/Kate-McLean-creates-smell-maps-cities-world-tribute-appreciated-sense.html)
    I know you don’t love the SEO type infographics like this one, (http://www.slideshare.net/darkdotorg/fare-trackers-whens-best-time-to-buy-plane-tickets) but they do have a purpose. Even if that purpose is link bait. When viewed through the lens of Truth or Beauty (Art) they are bound to fall short.
    What’s interesting to me is the lessons that can be learned from all schools of thought, and applied, if only the staunch loyalists to each school would step off and listen. For example (http://infosthetics.com/archives/2010/04/why_chart_junk_is_useful.html) which I am sure you have seen.

    Anyway – great post. Thanks – Gavin

  4. Statements like “…say hello to the designers, where function becomes decoration” make no sense whatsoever, even when it is followed by “(that’s not necessarily bad)”… Any good designer also takes into account aspects of utility and reliability.

    Accordingly, I would claim any custom-made data visualization is the result of a design process. In addition, I would like to propose Figure 6 out of this paper [http://infoscape.org/publications/ivs12.pdf] as a possible alternative for these linear graphs that try to capture the old dilemma of ‘function’ versus ‘form’.

  5. Andrew, a few random thoughts. I believe that “data visualization is the result of a design process”, right from the beginning: design makes data visible. When you make a line chart there is no line in the data, just some invisible data points. You choose to connect them using a line, and its properties are chosen by you, the chart maker. The chart designer.

    Please note that I use the word “function” in the post but I don’t use the word “form”. So perhaps this not function versus form at all, but instead how design changes its function. I named a group as “functionalists”, but I could also name them “data-centered designers”, and the “designers” as “design-centered designers”. I’m sure there are great designers in both groups, and all of them take “into account aspects of utility and reliability” but their approach is different: they have their personal style and the way they deal with reason and emotion often explains the differences.

    By the way, decoration is not about adding useless junk. Decoration begins when design becomes self-centered.

    Finally, I should be embarrassed by not knowing this paper and I will read it now. But I would never reduce the richness of these author’s work to a single dimension. The one I chose happens to explain (at least for me) a lot of variability among authors but there are other dimensions. As I say in the post, David Mccandless and many non-designers share the same space in this dimension but they obviously don’t belong to the same group.

  6. Jorge,

    I agree with much that you’ve written, but want to mention two points of disagreement:

    1) You cannot accurately say that Tukey, Cleveland, and Bertin are “not aware of, don’t care about or simply don’t pay much attention to graphic design.” They all thought a great deal about graphic design. In fact, much that we know about graphic design, we learned from Bertin and to a lesser degree from Cleveland. Perhaps what you meant to say was that they cared relatively little about the aesthetics of design. (Your statement that these guys don’t care about graphic design reminded me of the time when you wrote that I don’t care about interaction with graphics.)

    2) “Designer” is not an appropriate term for people who care more about decoration than function. Design is very much about function. David McCandless is not a designer. He is a journalist who dabbles in infographics without training in design or statistics, and with little regard for data.

  7. Jorge, this is an excellent breakdown that gets closer to a lot of what I was trying to say in my own blog post
    (http://spencerfleury.com/2013/07/16/the-difference-between-data-visualization-and-infographics/)
    on the same subject. I’ve never really seen data visualizations and infographics as really being closely-related enough to cause confusion, precisely because of your definition of what a data visualization is. However, it’s clear that the terms are too often used interchangeably, even by people who do know the difference, and I see that as a problem for the data viz field going forward.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  8. infographics are more for ‘normal people’, because are very strong focused on art and the facility of understanding the data with images, but data vis. is other world, basically, because there’s no way to oversee too much info with some regular images.

    and infographics are more for blogs and news sites

    it is my opinion,

    regards

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