Infographics, tables, and spring teaching

Information visualization is hot stuff these days, as sharing on Facebook shows. Ivan Cash built an “Infographic of infographics” based on Good.is visualizations. FastCompany offers five tools for making your own. Some Occupy Wall Street supporters are printing them on dollar bills. As I start building a spring 2012 course in visualization, I’m looking for texts, examples, starting points, courses others have taught. I’d love to hear your ideas.

Right away, I’m wondering about notology: how much time we’ll devote to what not to do. There are lovely visualizations out there, but a lot of noise competing with the signal. Too many “infographics” would be better rendered as simple text with an occasional chart or graphic, rather than a gigantic graphic. Here’s an example, “Securing yourself from a world of hackers,” 1000 pixels wide and 3172 pixels tall. Another, “Profile of Mac vs PC,” is 947 × 3693. Both graphics approach interesting subject matter: password security is particularly welcome, and the Mac vs PC comparisons are funny. But execution is poor. Form seems the starting point, not content. (“Infographics are hot hot hot. Go get me one.”) Worse, I see plenty of of questionable how-tos high in Google search results. Again, I welcome suggestions for high quality sites.

Detail of password infographic

I’m considering opening week work which features a few graphics, discusses their high and low points, and makes clear that visualization is not just prettying up (poor quality) content. Tying these activities to course objectives would set a clear path for the semester. For example, content in this password security graphic is weak:

  • The headline “Securing yourself from a world of hackers” is alarmist and misleading. Any security professional will say “securing yourself” is impossible. Reducing risk? That’s possible. Unfortunately, bad content carries through to “How to create the perfect password”–no. There can be no perfect password; no security mechanism is perfect. The copy promises something which can’t be delivered. From a security firm, this is disappointing.
  • The method for password generation and memorization is questionable. Try the mnemonic recommended here: it’s cumbersome at best. They generate ?LACpAs56IKMs” with five steps. Who can remember this? How is it more secure than other common methods of creating pseudo-complex passwords? If, as they recommend, it’s okay to write down passwords, why not just use randomly generated character strings? And it’s incomplete: they recommend testing passwords, but don’t say how.
  • The authors call on a few sources (Schneier) but cite irregularly, truncating citations to base URLs or not including them at all. The graphic mentions NASA guidelines but there’s no mention of NASA in the sources. Not a good example for academic writing!
  • Writing style is wordy and inconsistent. Some bullets use second person; some use third person. (“It is okay to write passwords down so they can be remembered” not “You can write down your passwords” or “Writing down your passwords is okay.”). Copy needs revision to bring characters and actions forward.

Etc. This maps to an objective about enhancing high-quality content through careful representation of data. Similar critiques could be targeted at others: effective design, knowing common visualization approaches, and familiarity with common visualization tools. (I guess it’s time to build out those objectives, eh?)

What “good” graphics should I include? Tufte’s well-known favorite, Minard’s rendering of Napoleon’s march? Staying meta, David McCandless’s What Makes Good Information Design? would be a good pick. I like both, but I think I also need some tables. Sometimes, tables are just better. A course in visualization which taught students how to make accessible, effective, well-designed tables would provide a very useful and transferable skill.

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2 Responses to Infographics, tables, and spring teaching

  1. Collin says:

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work, but I’d recommend Jessica Hagy’s Indexed (http://thisisindexed.com/) for an early, intro-y discussion about infographics–I’ve used it myself that way a couple of times. In the right class, I’d hand out 4×6’s, and have my students do an infographic in lieu of self-introduction…

    So much of the discussion I see is “what not to do” with very little reflection on what infographics actually accomplish, and what different genres do differently. Seems to me that Hagy’s site gets at those questions in a very accessible way…

    Good luck with the class…I look forward to hearing about it…

    cgb

    • cbd says:

      I hadn’t seen it; very cool. Not just an introduction but perhaps an assignment. Lo-fi makes lots of sense.

      And here I am contributing to the “what not to do.” 😉 I’ll rectify that soon.

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