The Usability of Infographics

Web designers everywhere are adding ‘infographics’ to their list of services. Here’s an infographic to illustrate the rise in infographics.

A decade ago, most websites betrayed a lack of understanding of basic usability principles; so it is with today’s infographics.

This was starkly evident when Smashing Magazine recently published  The Do’s And Don’ts Of Infographic Design:

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and produce a traditional bar graph or pie chart; nevertheless, always consider ways to dress it up…

The article was met with horror by the data visualization community. While infographics seem like an overnight success, data visualization has been established in academia for decades.

Pioneers like Edward Tufte, and others have shown — to take one example of a useful data visualization design principle — that people can differentiate shapes more easily than they can differentiate colours, and they can differentiate positions more easily than shapes. So when encoding different dimensions of data, position is a better visual property than shape, and both are better than colour.

None of this means a designer can’t use colour as a visual property to encode data. But a good designer should at least be aware of the basic principles before breaking them.

Flawed as it was, Smashing Magazine’s “Do’s and Don’ts” article was useful because it started a debate about best practices — among the web design community and the data visualization community. As well as the comments left by Smashing readers, a harsh riposte appeared on Flowing Data, which was subsequently published in Smashing Magazine.

This debate will hopefully bring some data visualization best practices into the grassroots web community, so that we will begin to see more infographics of the quality that the New York Times produces, and less chartjunk — like that infographic about infographics.

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