Thursday 22 February 2018

Functional Art for PR: An Interview with Alberto Cairo

The demand for infographics is increasing and in large part due to their ability to simplify complex ideas. Companies and agencies are struggling to keep up, which has made it a bit like the Wild West. After seeing a few online and in print, you’ll discover that the internet is filled with infographics both good and bad and as the old designer saying goes, “sure we can design it, and we can do it either fast, cheap, or good: pick whichever two you want.” Too many of us are failing to choose good.  There is a risk that after too many ‘bad’ infographics we could create a backlash and diminish the effectiveness of the tool.

Alberto Cairo, a leader and well respected individual amongst the information graphics community took some time to discuss the above and provide insight into what makes a good infographic and some advice for PR professionals.

You’ve become quite the role model (including for myself) in the data visualization and information graphic space. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in this field?

I got involved in infographics and visualization in my last year at Journalism school in Spain, back in 1997. One of my professors knew that I liked to draw a bit and recommended me for an internship at a local newspaper called La Voz de Galicia. I learned the craft at the newsroom. I didn’t know anything about design or graphics at the time, but I got marvelous teachers.

I’ve never left this world ever since. I became infographics director of the online version of El Mundo, a national Spanish newspaper, in 2000. Then I moved to teach at the School of Journalism of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2005. After that, I went to Brazil in 2009, where I was infographics director of an excellent weekly news magazine called Época. I’ve been teaching at the University of Miami since January 2012.

As you’re aware, there has been an influx in infographics from the PR and marketing industry.  What are your thoughts on this and are there areas for improvement?

I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon. On one hand, I do appreciate the efforts that so many people in PR and marketing are making to convey information by visual means. I believe that there’s a huge opportunity in there. On the other, I think that many of these efforts are wasted due to a lack of understanding of what infographics are really about.

A good infographic is never just a bunch of decontextualized numbers surrounded by some cute illustrations or pictograms, which is what many of those so-called “infographics” are. An infographic is a visual display of evidence, an argument, a means to tell a story, to clarify a complex issue, and —more importantly— to make trends and patterns in your data noticeable.

If you visit websites that aggregate infographics from marketing and PR agencies, you will see that most of them don’t respect this simple principle. They were designed as illustrations, as gimmicks to “attract eyeballs” (I’m borrowing their own jargon) in social media, to make them “go viral”. I am a fan of beautiful graphics, and I have nothing against getting readers interested in issues I care about, but our priorities when designing a graphic should be accuracy, functionality, and building a good narrative or interactive structure, not using a fancy color palette, a funky collection of typefaces, and a handful of funny drawings. Those come later, and only when they are appropriate.

What is the difference between infographics and data visualization?

There’s not really a huge difference. In The Functional Art I propose that an infographic is a summary of information, a story or narrative that a designer puts together based on some data. The designer makes an editorial decision on what to include and what to leave aside. A data visualization is a display that lets readers manipulate data, interact with them and extract different meanings.

You could say that an infographic tells the story that a designer —or a journalist— wants to tell, while a data visualization is a tool that readers can use to build their own customized stories. In the book I explain that there’s a huge overlap between these two areas, though. There are certain graphics that first present the most relevant points of a certain dataset and, right after that, they allow readers to dig into that data at will. Are those graphics “infographics” or “data visualizations”? They are both.

What defines a successful infographic or data visualization? What are the core principles required in order to develop a successful infographic or data visualization.

The first thing you have to worry about is the quality of the information you are using, obviously. After that, in my book and classes I explain that you need to ask yourself: “What do I want readers to accomplish with the graphic?” This is the crucial step. A visualization is a tool and, as any other tool, its form (or forms) need to be adapted to its functions. The visual shape you make your information adopt should be constrained by the tasks your graphic should help readers with.

Think of a hammer. It’s an extension of your body that has a certain shape because it’s supposed to help you do certain things. Hammers can come in different varieties, sizes, and colors, but their underlying shape is usually the same. Graphics are similar: they extend your visual perception; think of them as X-ray glasses that let you see the truths hidden behind walls made of data. This relationship between forms and functions is complex, but very important.

Suppose that you want readers to perceive the geographic patterns of concentration of homicides, the homicide rates at the county-level in the US. This is the task. You would never encode your data using a bar graph because the task the graphic is intended to facilitate is not to compare counties or to rank them, but to reveal general patterns of concentration of homicides. You’d choose a choropleth map, a kind of data map that uses different shades of color: the darker the shade, the higher the homicide rate.

Another example that I use all the time: if you want readers to accurately compare and rank figures, never use a bubble chart, a pie chart, or even a map, as humans are not that good at comparing areas. Use a bar graph or a dot plot instead. They let you perceive relative differences without even reading the numbers that accompany them.

After you have decided what graphic forms better suit to your data and the tasks you want help readers with, you need to think about structure: How to organize the different graphs, maps, and diagrams into a cohesive composition, or how to create a proper interface for an interactive version. Also, you should pay attention to copy. Designers tend to ignore text. As a journalist, I can say that this is a huge mistake. An infographic is a tight combination of text and visuals. Headlines matter. So do explainers, legends, notes.

From a journalists perspective, what things would you look for if you were pitched an infographic from a PR agency? What advice can you give to a PR professional?

Care about aesthetics and fun, but care about honesty, accuracy, depth, structure, and functionality first. An infographic is not a means to simplify information, as my friend the famous designer Nigel Holmes used to say; it is a way to clarify it. I fully agree with that statement, which I reproduced almost verbatim in my book.

Given the volume of exclusive and typically private information corporations have access to, what types of stories would you like to see these company’s tell via infographics or data visualizations?

If the data they gather can help make the world a better place, I would certainly like to see them get some inspiration from Hans Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation, the World Bank, the UN, and other institutions that use data, infographics, and visualization to inform the public.

Can you share the top 5 resources (online, books, video) on infographics and data visualization that you would recommend to a PR professional?

I am a bookworm. I have actually put together a list of recommended readings for my courses here. A good place to start would be the books by Dan Roam, Edward Tufte, Stephen Few, Naomi B. Robbins, Connie Malamed, or even my own. After that, learn about statistics, cartography, and visual storytelling.

You organized the first ever massive online course focused on infographics and data visualization. A course that I have found valuable for my career in this field. Do you recommend this to PR professionals? If so, why?

I do. The course is not about software or graphic design, but about how to build graphs and maps in ways that help readers understand a complex issue, and about how to tell stories with them. That’s a skill anybody can learn, as the hundreds of students in my first MOOC can probably attest.

Finally, where do you see infographics and data visualization going in 2013?

I don’t know. I can tell you where I would like them to go, though: I’d like to see designers and journalists learning more about evidence, science, and statistics, and scientists learning more about communication and design.

Image credit: Lauren Manning

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