FORGET INFORMATION, LET’s talk about meaning.
IN HIS BOOK THE TRUTHFUL ART, ALBERTO CAIRO REMINDS US THAT THE PURPOSE OF INFOGRAPHICS IS TO ENLIGHTEN PEOPLE - NOT TO ENTERTAIN THEM, NOT TO SELL PRODUCTS, BUT TO INFORM THEM. YET THERE WAS A PERIOD NOT SO LONG AGO WHEN DESIGNERS LOST SIGHT OF THIS VERY IMPORTANT IDEA; THOSE ODD FEW YEARS WHEN THE WORLD WENT MAD FOR INFOGRAPHICS.
I often wonder whether we’ll look back and be able to pinpoint ‘Peak Infographic’ or whether it will remain an unquantifiable yet strongly felt period in our history. Perhaps it will be something we’ll argue over in pubs when we’ve had one too many, rather like the golden age of British Football.
The briefs came in thick and fast. On the better days, some of them read like briefs. They came with real data and some idea of a user or an audience. Some days they were just vague requests. Press releases, dubious research methods, unsourced statistics with a request to ‘‘make it infographicky.” How I hated that word; all the charm of an extreme form of motion sickness. Not entirely unlike the infographics themselves. This whole saga was unfortunate yet somehow inevitable. A knee-jerk response to the dizzying era of ‘Big Data.’ Narrative took indefinite leave and infographics with no purpose or audience made up the hours.
Infographics became their own visual language. The rules went something like this:
Radial charts, pie charts, anything round!
Pies charts of innumerable slices!
Cascades of colours! (Forget contrast)
Titles in banners with squared swags and tails!
Large percentages in condensed typefaces!
Icons! Men in ties, piles of money, briefcases, cogs and light bulbs!
Stock websites peddled ‘cool infographic templates.’ The stoic, steadfast bar chart was reimagined as triangles one week and semi-circles the next. Hundreds of years of visual principles were retired. Anyone with a copy of Illustrator was having a go. It was an exciting time for the amateur. I imagine it was a very testing time for Edward Tufte. I am sure the poor chap got no sleep at all.
The phone kept ringing, the studios got bigger, the clients more prestigious, the problems more complex. Data was the new content and many designers were clueless. Information graphics had ceased to inform. They confused, they befuddled but most importantly (at least for a while) they sold you stuff.
I may be an anomaly but I’ve always refused to accept the idea that selling people things is the only worthwhile spend of creative energy. Bizarrely, I think I developed this point of view at advertising school. The big idea was still very much alive in 2002. The goal was to work on ‘big contracts’ in ‘top agencies’. They wheeled in smug creatives from said agencies, old white dudes (no women) in black turtlenecks with thick- rimmed glasses. They would come and tell us stories about the best ideas they ever had. Everyone would laugh. No one really knew why. At some point there’d be a reference to pro- bono work. This, it was explained, was the well-meaning stuff you did for people with no budget. It got you tax relief and awards but you couldn’t make a living doing it, so no one spent much time on it. That was that.
I spent summers on placements in these agencies in a permanent state of moral panic. After three weeks sat next to a five foot Big Mac I packed what remained of my soul into a bag and vowed to actively reject this version of the creative industry. Years later, at some point in the run-up to Peak Infographic I was working on a data analytics dashboard for some huge faceless corporation when it dawned on me I was there again. I was sitting next to the Big Mac. I promptly quit my job and took myself back to school.
I took a year to learn. I did personal work. Data was my medium. I explored open data on the housing crisis. I used it to develop a publication that put gentrification into a local context for my local community. I ran public mapping workshops, simple hand-drawn data exercises that helped people discuss their experiences of community and their urban environment. I developed interpretation maps to connect local children with wildlife in east London. I started to map the Knowledge, the exam taken by London’s cab drivers. I did what I hadn’t allowed myself to do in a long time; I developed a point of view and a practice. This got noticed. It helped me to build an entirely new list of clients who had problems worth solving. I realised that many large organisations needed help with their data, their strategies, their design. Since then I’ve been very busy. I’ve worked in contexts that are diverse, creatively rich and exciting in places I never thought I’d find myself. I’ve contributed to projects that solve problems beyond the standard bottom line.
It was around this time that I started teaching for Guardian Masterclasses, Kingston School of Art and University of the Arts London. I enjoy introducing people to the creative possibilities of working with data. Each time, I try to make the gap between people and data a little bit smaller.
We can joke about Peak Infographic, and believe me, we do, but it was not as senseless as we often imagine. It played its role in introducing a wider audience to the visual language of data. It made everyone a bit less fearful of ‘the numbers.’ Since Peak Infographic there’s an increasing community of people pushing at the edges of what data can do and how it can benefit people. Organisations like DataKind are harnessing the power of data science in the service of humanity, creating safer streets, making social issues visible, advancing financial inclusion in Senegal using predictive modeling (no really). Giorgia Lupi has produced a Manifesto for Data Humanism; an impressive call to the creative community to start designing ways to connect numbers with knowledge, behaviours and people. Living Map are developing new data platforms for the world’s busiest and most complex places - connecting people with information at key times and locations, taking us beyond that equivocal blue dot. People like Nicky Case are using game theory to help us understand complex ideas like trust. Valentina D’Efilippo is changing the way we listen to David Bowie with OddityViz. Nesta are creating design challenges to generate innovative and sustainable open data solutions to social challenges.
Information is cheap and omnipresent in our daily lives. Meaning however, is expensive and a genuinely worthwhile pursuit. The more integral data becomes, the more we must seek opportunities to connect people and data in more meaningful ways. As creatives, it’s time to find new ways to collaborate and forge new creative futures.
It’s time to get excited about the possibilities.
Laura is a designer based in London. She specialises in branding, information design and data visualisation. As a consultant and trainer, she has worked with the government, charities and global brands, helping them to communicate their data and information and develop information-led communication strategies.