‘Chartjunk’ is a term coined by Edward Tufte in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information published n 1983. I read the book as an undergrad during a course on qualitative and quantitative research methods. Tufte’s strict no-nonsense policy on visualizing data was clear: When you represent information in a chart or graph, avoid any splashy or cutesy graphics that aren’t necessary. In other words, don’t decorate the data. It only distracts the viewer and may even skew the information you’re trying to represent.
Tufte’s Worst Nightmare (Source)
That’s More Like It (Source)
Needless to say, a lot has changed since 1983. Thanks to the internet, average people now share and consume mind-boggling amounts of information every day. In the midst of this information overload, eye-catching infographics have emerged as a popular way to break through the clutter. They’re especially effective on social media platforms where they can easily go viral.
You can find a brief history of infographics, represented in an infographic, here.
I find myself wondering what Tufte would have to say about the popularity of infographics. Are they just glorified chartjunk? Or are they an extremely effective and entertaining tool for communicating data?
It helps to realize that the audience Tufte had in mind was quite different than the average Twitter user, and his advice was geared more towards formal presentations of data to business executives, policy-makers, or anyone who had to make a seriously big decision based on the facts at hand.
It’s common sense really. If there are lives or millions of dollars at stake, you’ll probably want to avoid any cartoony graphics on your bar chart. And unless the goal is to have your superiors laugh at you, it’s best not to make your revenue report look like giant cartoon pencils, bottles of wine, or people covered in weird stripy plastic body wrap.
The infographics popular today are pretty much ideal for social networks: they’re shareable bite-sized nuggets of infotainment designed for fleeting attention spans.
When done well, they can translate large amounts of abstract data into quick, easy to understand terms for the average non-researcher. When done badly, they’re either confusing or just plain goofy.
The infographic below by a UK health food retailer to promote tea is pretty bad. I especially love the oddly arranged bloodshot eyeballs to represent caffeine levels, and the images of salt and butter to help explain the complicated concepts of “salt” and “butter.”
Sitting Down is Killing You is a recent example that’s visually engaging and to-the-point but packs in some sobering statistics, a clear message and specific advice:
So are even good infographics annoying chartjunk, or are they great examples of succinct, engaging digital communications? Are they the best of both worlds, or the worst combination of the two?