Visualising data

Have you ever wondered about the distance from Earth to Mars or about the science of beer goggles? Although infographics are not a new thing—essentially, the first map makers were the true pioneers of data visualisation—they have seen a surge in popularity in the last few years. So why are infographics such a compelling way of presenting data? What makes some infographics better than others at conveying their content? And how can they be used in science communication?

The popularity of infographics is hardwired in the way we process information. Language is arbitrary: there is no direct relation between sounds or letters and the objects they represent. Visual stimuli, however, have a simple, iconic correspondence with their real world counterparts. Infographics also visually resemble their topic in this iconic way. For instance, this wind map of the US shows wind direction and speed using shaded lines. Direct representation requires less computational effort from your brain than text; this is why infographics are so easy to process.

More information can be conveyed visually than through language. The first person to take advantage of this was William Playfair, the inventor of line graphs, bar charts and pie charts. Not only do charts take less time to interpret, they are also far more memorable. The brain has to store just one picture, instead of trying to remember countless little pieces of information. Images are also an excellent way to break up a long piece of text and retain a reader’s attention.This is especially relevant for science journalism where the subject matter can be challenging. Your message is more likely to come across if your image already contains the information you mean to convey.

The most important part of an infographic is content: the data it aims to display. Before creating one, it is key to consider whether the information has iconic aspects and is thus suitable for visualisation. If this is not the case, you will require too much text to make your point, such as in this infographic about photosynthesis. Quantitative data is certainly visualisable in an iconic way, for example the proportions in a pie chart should be equal to those in reality (although some unsuccessful infographics fail to do this). A qualitative infographic will succeed only if it visually conceptualises its topic. ‘How to tie a tie’ and ‘Moon phases explained (with Oreo cookies)’ are good examples.

A good infographic is hierarchically organised: it establishes the bigger picture before going into detail. To communicate the hierarchy successfully in the order you envisioned, an infographic has to visually guide the reader’s eye. The straightforward choice is to arrange the elements from left to right, and from top to bottom. You can also mix it up a bit, like in this new take on the periodic table, but then you have to make sure that there are visual cues to guide the eye in a flowing way. Size, placement, arrows, and typesetting can signal hierarchy in an infographic just as well as subheadings in a written piece.

An infographic must be aesthetically appealing. The data must form the centre of attention, and the design of an infographic must complement the information rather than distract from it. Ideally, the look and feel match the topic. For example, an infographic about astronomy may use a space-like colour scheme and futuristic heading fonts. As in all forms of journalism, an infographic should be designed to suit its audience and publication.

So how can infographics be used in science communication? In science journals, charts and diagrams are already the standard way of conveying numerical information. Good infographics also visualise relationships between datasets in an elegant, efficient, and accurate way. Infographics are thus an excellent vehicle to publish scientific content in an accessible format. The design of infographics is essentially not all that different from other forms of science journalism. Both use an inverted pyramid structure and need to be aimed at the right audience.

The real difference lies in content: infographics are a summarised version of a story. This means that they have the potential to explain a difficult scientific topic with a very low threshold. But they lack the context that, for example, a written article provides. With minimal explanation of how data is derived, the message of an infographic can be ambiguous. This makes it easy to wrap a biased message in a trustworthy, scientific looking infographic. For infographics in science communication, it is thus important to be transparent in naming sources. Science must be visualised in a way that prevents misinterpretation.

A last question remains: what do we want readers of infographics to take away from them? Should they teach the reader something, or just make them smile? Either way, a good infographic can be a useful addition to a science communicator’s arsenal. Its lack of context may cause a loss in subtlety, but it is a powerful way to quickly get a point across.

Sarah Wells is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

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