Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

We Have Entered The Golden Age of Visual Storytelling

A conversation with Gareth Cook, editor of The Best American Infographics

They say a picture is worth a thousand words—maybe even more. And this is not only because visuals can speak to us emotionally in ways words cannot, but also because if done correctly, they can cut through the verbal noise to communicate a complicated idea very clearly and concisely. 

In 1983, Edward Tufte wrote in his classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

“Modern day graphics can do much more than simply substitute for small statistical tables. At their best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information. Often the most effective way to describe, explore, and summarize a set of numbers…is to look at those numbers.  Furthermore, of all methods for analyzing and communicating statistical information, well-designed data graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time the most powerful.” 

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Now 30 years later, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Gareth Cook has collected in one place the inaugural volume of The Best American Infographics. Gareth is a contributor to the New Yorker and is the editor of the Mind Matters blog for Scientific American.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Gareth some questions about his thoughts on this new Golden Age of visual storytelling.

JON: Why are these The Best American Infographics? And are they a good reflection of what was important in American society in the last year?

Gareth Cook
GARETH: I was looking out for four things. The first was intellectual power: Does the infographic yield insights? Did it challenge me to think? Do I know something I didn’t know before? The second was aesthetic sophistication. Some of the infographics are just gorgeous. Others are creative about how they use of color or texture or space. The third factor was emotional impact, be it surprise, delight or awe. My final consideration was more amorphous, a desire that the collection as a whole tell the story of infographics, and the story of the year. We have climate change, and guns, food labels, political campaigns, and the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s a different way of seeing where we have been and where we are going.

What was your favorite infographic from the book? Why?

I can’t choose just one! I have many different favorites. The interactive wind infographic is amazing. It shows how the wind is moving across the United States right now. I find it mesmerizing. Another one I like for different reasons is “Which birthdays are most common?” You can see a dark stripe in the Fall showing when more babies are born, and you can also find your own birthday. Or there’s the poster that shows how to make all of the classic cocktails. There are two others that make me smile every time I see them: “Should I check email?” and “How to be happy.” Each of these pieces is trying to do something very different, but they all do them well.

Considering most people today are too busy to read long articles anymore, do you think infographics could be a more efficient way for them to acquire information?

Infographics take advantage of our visual intelligence. So when they are done well they allow us to make sense of a large amount of information quickly. They can have real advantages over text. But writing is powerful in different ways. They are two different ways of conveying information and telling stories. One is not better than the other.

You write, “The people who visualize the world for us make choices, and these choices can skew our impressions.” Is journalism, and in particular science journalism, moving towards an era where you have to able to communicate in both verbal and visual ways? And how do you think infographics can influence us in ways that words cannot?

I think it is clear that there is going to be more multimedia storytelling. We are already seeing more sophistication using infographics, videos, photos and text altogether. I think, though, that we are not as accustomed to being critical about the images we see as we are about the text that we read. Infographics and other images can be very powerful. For example, if you see the 50 states in red and blue, it’s easy to get the impression that each state is a monolith of Democratic or Republican thought. Americans are actually less polarized than that—much more purple. We need to be more attuned to that. There are basic questions we can ask: What is the data, and where did it come from? What was left out? What is emphasized, what is assumed, and what is glossed over?

I noticed some of the infographics immediately communicated information clearly, whereas for others the explanatory text was needed.  What are the key elements of a good infographic?

In general I think it is better for graphics to have less text. The infographics in this collection all have very different goals so they use different tools in achieving them. Some are meant to be understood quickly, and others are for exploring. There are many elements of a good infographic but I would say that the two most important are clarity of purpose and clarity of presentation. Did the designers have a clear goal, a clear set of things they wanted to show? Do all of the elements contribute to that goal? And, second, is it easy to make sense of the final product? A good infographic gives you insight and this requires clarity.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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