When infographics (data art) masquerade as data visualization

I’m a big fan of Stephen Few and his approach to data visualization. His book Show Me The Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten has been immensely helpful in my work as a user researcher, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of his excellent seminars. So I’ve been really interested to hear his viewpoint on the latest Infographic craze that’s taking the pageview world by storm.

I am personally not a fan of the Infographics that are passed around on Twitter every day. Most of them are confusing and only meant to drive eye candy-derived traffic with no intention to communicate data clearly. I think we pretty much hit rock bottom with this Mashable monstrosity called “The Internet Is Ruining Your Brain”. For some fun reading, also see Dan Frommer’s How Infographics Are Ruining The Web, and Megan McArdle’s Ending the Infographic Plague.

But now, Stephen finally weighed in on his blog with a very sensible argument about the nature of data visualization, and where common web infographics fit into that universe. He starts his article Data Art vs. Data Visualization by making an important distinction:

There are as many definitions of data visualization as there are definers, but at the root of this term that has been around for many years is the goal that data be visualized in a way that leads to understanding. Whatever else it does, it must inform. If we accept this as fundamental to the definition of data visualization, we can judge the merits of any example above all else on how clearly, thoroughly, and accurately it enlightens.

By data art, I’m referring to visualizations of data that seek primarily to entertain or produce an aesthetic experience. It is art that is based on data. As such, we can judge its merits as we do art in general.

He goes on to give three reasons why it’s harmful when data art masquerades as data visualization.