Data visualizations vs. infographics: Why the difference matters

You've heard the terms "data visualization" and "infographic"--but are they the same thing? Do designers, executives, and readers alike need to understand why they may be very different?
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

In an era of visual thinkers, a growing awareness of the power of design, and a proliferation of data, untangling the difference between various types of graphs can be a helpful exercise for businesses and designers alike. Two terms that are thrown around a lot these days are "data visualization" and "infographic." Are these two genres interchangeable? And are there some instances when one type of graphic might be more appropriate than others? Why does it matter?

The trend-watching site PSFK recently published (on May 5) an interview with Max Gadney, founder and design director of London-based data-design company After the Flood, tacking these very questions. Gadney has designed clear, beautiful, graphics for clients such as the BBC and public-relations firm Edelman. Here are some key points--with some added context:

  • "Data visualizations require more work and sifting by a user, in order to find patterns and insight," Gadney said in the PSFK interview. In other words, they are a bit more complex and involve analysis and storytelling.
  • "Infographics are a quick and popular way of communicating that insight," Gadney added. I interpret this as classifying infographics as the "blurbs" of visual storytelling--to use old-school magazine lingo for the types of short, quick stories you might find at the front of a print publication. (Yeah, like an infographic itself! My point exactly.) Or perhaps the visual equivalent of a blog post: fast, timely, probably with the aim of presenting information rather than analyzing it too deeply.
  • "Information design has now become a fashionable stylistic motif in graphic design--rather as a tool for communication--which also confuses the debate in this nascent discipline," Gadney said. Good point: designers and readers are growing very used to lovely, statistic-filled visual compilations of information. Sometimes they look alike. I took this point as a warning, and interpret it as this: unless designers and readers can tell the difference, they might absorb information hastily put together in an infographic as extremely well-researched. Parallel, again, to the difference between a slapped-together blog post versus a deeply reported news feature in a magazine, newspaper, or news site. The more quickly produced infographic might not be as fact-checked or as "objective," at the very least because of time--or budget--constraints.

Sure, infographics certainly have their place in the never-ending churn of information that we all consume--and which companies create. Just as blog posts (like this one) do. They can be made fast and convey data speedily. They're intellectual snacks, in a way, sustaining us until we get a more well-rounded report on a topic. But as lines sometimes seem to blur between infographics and data visualizations, it's key for both the authors and readers of each of these types graphics to make it clear what their goals might be when making, or consuming, both kinds.

[Via PSFK]

Related on SmartPlanet:

The Secrets to Successful Data Visualization

Image: Nick Bilton/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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