The Rise of the Infographic

The word “Infographic” is still shiny and new. Annoyingly, I can’t get spell-check to accept it as a real word, and neither Merriam or Webster believe it exists. But Google does, and Wikipedia, and that’s good enough for me. Infographic – a word made up by smushing Information and Graphic together – has been around for a while. The earliest citation I can find is from 1976. I first came across it in NixLog around 2003. Now it seems they have jumped into the mainstream, and are becoming part of the zeitgeist.

Google Trends - Web Search interest- infographic - Worldwide, 2004 - present

There are a rash of Infographics flooding the internet today, to the point where we are beginning to see a backlash. Like PowerPoint, some people love them, some people hate them. That’s not surprising since for every good Infographic, there are a hundred awful ones. Given that, it seems fair to look at what exactly makes a good Infographic. Let’s start with an easy question. What is an Infographic? The Wikipedia definition, graphic visual representations of information, is a little to circular for me. (C’mon Wikipedia, you have a reputation to uphold). Back to Merriam-Webster.

Here we go. Informationthe communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence and Graphicof or relating to the pictorial arts. So if my logic isn’t too twisted, an Infographic should communicate knowledge or intelligence, and do it pictorially, with a smidgin of art thrown in.

Taking a page from my favorite fake scholar, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.* in his seminal work Understanding Poetry,

To fully understand poetry Infographics, we must first be fluent with its meter Data, rhyme Information, and figures of speech aesthetic. Then ask two questions: One, how artfully has the objective of the poem Infographic been rendered, and two, how important useful is that objective. Question one rates the poem’s Infographic’s perfection, question two rates its importance usefulness. And once these questions have been answered, determining a  poem’s Infographic’s  greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

Put simply – is it pleasing to the consumer’s eye, and secondly is it useful. (This takes into account how easily it is understood, the veracity of its sources, etc.)  Question 1 is endlessly subjective, although there are generally accepted principles that work. Question 2 is the big one. A lot of infographics are produced to capture eyeballs, and so their usefulness, and to whom, goes by the wayside. Question 2  is usually where the infographic bait and switch happens. A poor infographic tries to be neutral. A good infographic has a point of view, and then moves towards a line between positioning the truth to make your point, and distorting or obfuscating it.

An Infographic of Infographics

*from Dead Poet’s Society

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Kevin Chalk | January 27, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    That’s a great definition can you pls send it to those who need it?

  2. Pingback: Infographics – have they gone too far? | MarkjOwen's Blog

  3. markjowenMark J Owen | January 29, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    I’m with you on this…and wrote a “like-minded” post (http://markjowen.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/infographics-have-they-gone-too-far/)

  4. Steve Schildwachter | February 4, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Fantastic post, Gavin. I knew I could count on you for common sense on a topic like this one.

    Most infographics seem to me nothing more than the little pictures USAToday has been publishing since the 1980s. It seems that some people will only look at data if it looks like a comic strip.

    Smart data jockeys, however, create infographics in which the data and the aesthetic shape one another. You get a smart picture of an interesting trrend, point of information or game-changing observation.


  5. Craig | February 5, 2012 at 5:06 am

    I’m not sure I buy these two measures. The first seems to me to be relevant only if there has been failure of the second. The graphic may be unpleasant, but nevertheless useful. The second seems to be a given – why create it if it brings no added value.

    I would suggest that an infographic needs to be 1) clear and 2) illuminating. By clear, I mean that the graphic must be quickly and intuitively understandable. If not, why bother. One could read the text to get the point. By illuminating I mean that the graphic must add dimensions to the communication that only visuals can bring. For example, visual metaphors, relativity of data using size, patterns, color or texture, or images that drive home the key points of a communication.

    • Gavin | February 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      Craig, I agree with you to a point. I think there are a few things going on with an infographic. First you are trying to get across information. That needs to be clear and illuminating. But like everything how you illuminate shows a point of view. Look at the earlier post of the mint money graphic. http://makeapowerfulpoint.com/2011/10/27/infographic-how-much-big-corporations-pay-in-taxes/ There they take a potentially touchy subject and visually soften it. They take the more incendiary statistic, the % corporations pay, (AT&T pays -6.4%) and put that in the least prominent position, in the smallest type. It’s just as easy to lie with infographics and visuals as it is with statistics. You pick and choose what you want to highlight and go from there. My point in the post is that most infographics that you see (the bad ones anyway) don’t pick a point of view. The data never speaks for itself, otherwise all you ever need to publish is a spreadsheet. The good ones pick a point of view – which in my view should be around the user.

  6. Rick Henderson | April 27, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    A nice little article. I want to go around and find out how to make good infographics, and what techniques are generally employed. Just yesterday I was thinking about it and did the same Google Trends search :)

  7. Pingback: the rise of the infographic | makeapowerfulpoint.com « The Reading List

  8. Pingback: Trend Spotting: Why 3 Experts Think Infographics Communicate Better Knowledge « Anna Rydne Communicate (your) Skills

  9. Jeroen Breugelmans | October 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Here are some great examples of what can be achieved with powerpoint only:

    jeroen breugelmans

  10. Pingback: Trusting Google and Infographics | StrategyWorks

  11. Pingback: Infographics - have they gone too far? – MarkJOwen

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