Infographics in Technical Writing and Communication

By Lee Brasseur  Department of English, Illinois State University

Infographics seem to be the “in thing” in information design these days, and more technical writing instructors are beginning to include them as assignments in their classes.  I first became interested in infographics when I started to see how the genre of graphs and charts had shifted from simplistic representations to ones embellished with graphics (as those originally shown in USA Today). I then saw this trend move to even more complex visual and verbal presentations of quantitative and qualitative information in newspapers, websites, and books.

Infographics were a new kind of genre, offering a more complex, more encapsulated way of understanding quantitative information for a new generation.  In this article, I will discuss the genre of infographics, its relationship to both cognitive and contextual theories, and using them as a technical writing assignment.

What is an infographic?

Infographics can be defined in many ways, but one of the definitions I like best is from the journalist Alberto Cairo, the author of The Functional Art. He explains infographics and visualization as existing on a continuum (xvi). His book provides an introduction to information graphics and visualization and is one that I have used in my technical writing classes. Cairo calls this new genre indicative of the “relationship between visualization and art, which is similar to journalism and literature” (xxi).  For Cairo, visualization is “not just art, but functional art” (23). His book also provides details of the gestalt school of thought and pattern recognition, which I think should be a focus of any unit on information graphics.

I realize that many English scholars have issues with cognitive gestalt perspectives because it is thought that gestalt theorists only envision a universal viewer. However, Rudolf Arnheim, art theorist and author of many books on visualization and art, disagreed with this view.  When I worked with him at the University of Michigan, he said that he believed that the way in which one thing is positioned in relationship to something else is important (a central gestalt thought), but that he never saw this kind of pattern recognition as a universal norm that negated cultural differences.

Although Arnheim’s most famous book is Visual Thinking, he told me that he thought his book The Power of the Center was representative of his most advanced thinking on perception. And he’s right.  In this later book, he made it clear that the concept of a universal viewer was not his focus but that dynamic centers, like we see in a work of art (or in an infographic), are “a focus of energy from which vectors radiate into the environment” (13). It is an idea that is critical to designing good infographics.

For example, Arnheim wrote in The Power of the Center about the ways in which vectors force our eyes to perceive information almost as if there were arrows emerging from a center point to a particular direction.  As our eye and mind perceive this relationship, we intuitively change our perspective.  For example, with the new genre of infographics, instead of just seeing slices of a pie chart, we can examine a complex group of images as “information architecture” (Cairo 17).  This, of course, isn’t the kind of architecture used to construct a building but, instead, exists in our cognitive and contextual life and helps us navigate our world and build a narrative around it (Cairo 46).

Thus, information graphics can combine words, realistic and abstract images, graphs, charts, and numbers. These combinations offer a clearer rhetorical point of view because of this combination. As Cairo points out, information graphics allow us to present several variables; to make comparisons; to organize information; and, finally, to see correlations or relationships in a far more complex way than we could with traditional graphs and charts.  They help the reader organize information and see correlations or relationships evident in related pieces of information through a narrative structure (Cairo 46).

As complex visualizations infographics can tell a far richer story than traditional graphs or charts (Cairo 47-48), and their popularity comes from their combination of abstract and realistic images, combined with words.  In many ways, infographics are ideally made for the younger technical communication generation—for people who want information fast and who want to understand complex information in both a visual and verbal presentation.

Although the infographic genre is fairly new to technical communicators, most journalists are already familiar with the genre because it offers newspaper readers the best of both worlds—the opportunity to understand quantitative relationships through the abstraction of shapes presented on scalable matrices, but also the opportunity to see images about the subject being discussed.  Here is a link to a recent infographic from the Huffington Post that tells the story of the gender wage gap: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/11/gender-wage-gap_n_3424084.html?utm_hp_ref=infographics

This infographic is part of an article entitled “Gender Wage Gap Heavily Influenced by Occupation Segregation.”  While it begins with a standard textual three-paragraph introduction, the infographic itself carries its own title (“The Other Gender Gap”) and is followed by several paragraphs of text.  These paragraphs inform readers that the proportion of a dollar that is made by a woman today, when compared to the proportion of a dollar that is made by a man today, has been the same for 50 years because the top professions for women haven’t changed in that time. It then leads our eye to a subtitle: “50 Years of Job Shifts:  10 Leading Occupations of Women.” Beneath this we see two columns—one labeled “1960” and the other labeled “2010.” In this arrangement, we are able to graphically compare the top ten women’s occupations over 50 years. Because the information is presented in an infographic, it provides even further explanation underneath by showing us yet another graphic about how “’Female Jobs Pay Less.”  What we see next is a line graph divided into two sections.  The section on the left is black and entitled “Male Dominated,” and the section on the right is red and entitled “Female Dominated.”

Underneath this information, we find yet another title, “The Gender Pay Gap Exists Across the Workforce,” which is followed by four shaded rectangles, each telling its own visual/verbal story that paints a graphic picture of the gender pay gap for female employees that exists across the workforce.  At the bottom of the infographic, we find the sources for the information.

In sum, what we have here is a very different kind of reporting of statistical data than a traditional pie chart or bar graph. Here, instead, we have text and image—both representative and abstract—and the use of three colors: black, red, and white (with grey in the background) that help tell the story.  This is what makes an infographic so compelling.  It gives us the kind of complexity that we might expect in, say, a work of art.

Why has this complexity come about?

Of course, complexity in graphic representation has existed for a very long time.  Realistic paintings, such as Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegrantie from 1487 show the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms surrounded by attendants.  The painting places the central figure in the artwork (the baby Jesus) in the prominent center, where it is intended to draw the eye to the ways the baby’s hands and arms are pictured.  One hand is drawn in a traditional “blessing” position, while the other hand is holding a globe. Rudolf Arnheim called this painting amicrotheme (Power 76) because Boticelli has arranged the baby’s arms to draw our eye to these specific visual symbols. Thus, even this “representational” painting is designed, just as an infographic is, to guide our eyes to the point is that is being graphically made.  (As an aside, Arnheim was as interested in graphs and charts as art work.)

Infographics can also have elements of both abstraction and representation, as in this infographic of a map of the world from the Washington Post.  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/15/a-fascinating-map-of-the-worlds-most-and-least-racially-tolerant-countries/).  This information visualization is color-coded according to a light-to-dark color scale that shows the percentages of people in certain countries who were asked to choose those people of a different race who they would not want as their neighbors.

The infographic, which was designed by Max Fisher, was published on May 15, 2013.  The map of the world that we see has, in the corner, a visual legend with textual information directly above it that tells us, though a scale of varying gradients of color, the percentage of people who had been polled in those countries and asked to choose which different racial groups of people they would not want as their neighbors.  This is followed by textual paragraphs that help us learn more about what survey—the World Values Survey—and how information on these global attitudes and opinions for decades were collected.

What is even more interesting is Fisher’s extensive verbal explanation below the infographic in which he lets us know that what we are seeing is complex and nuanced.  He is able to help us understand, in textual detail, that some of the complexities in the data are hidden because of the particular ways that people were asked the question.  For example, we find that it is possible that some people could have lied to appear more tolerant—a piece of information that an isolated, traditional graph or chart would rarely tell us. In addition, he also explains that the information itself can be deceiving since, “while the data suggest that Swedes are more racially tolerant than Finns, it’s possible that Finns are just more honest.”  He goes on to explain some of the history of a few of the countries that, on the surface, show more or less tolerance of those of a different race.  This helps us understand the nuances of the survey on which the graphic is based.  The key point here is that an infographic can give us the complexity behind raw data because it combines images with words.  Thus, in this infographic, we have extended text immediately below the graphic that shows us that different conclusions can be made based on the visual content.

Why do infographics make good technical writing assignments? 

For those of us who are technical writing instructors, infographics’ ability to give us the complexity behind raw data in a fact we can point out to students.  They, like Fisher, cannot only show complexity graphically, but they also can provide, in a textual form, information about the data that helps us realize that a visual display may not be representative of reality. It is an idea not dissimilar to what Arnheim explained in The Power of the Center when he described how artists used shapes, sizes, colors, and visual perceptual relationships to help a viewer intuit complex relationships between different parts of the artwork.  At the same time, he acknowledged the importance of context.  As he writes at the end of this book, “The relation between the complexity of the fully realized work and the most abstract visual formula of its essence reveals the full range of its meaning” (224). Thus, it is the same in infographics.  Like aesthetic works of art, infographics, upon study, communicate more complexity and, in many situations, the true essence of the abstract information. That is the beauty of infographics and is that is why I teach them in my technical writing classes.

What are the problems with using infographic assignments?

Of course, there are always negative sides to any new graphic invention, and, one of them is that the reader/viewer of an infographic may accept its truth if he or she does not read the inserted text or looks at only part of the picture.  In addition, since infographics are typically shown in journalistic or news-oriented sites, they often compete for our attention with ads and articles.

What Arnheim was saying some years ago is very similar to what many infographic designers are saying today: that we humans are not detached viewers, but, instead, as we gaze at something, whether a painting or an infographic, “we are in it and of it, and we therefore see it partially and from a private perspective” (43 Power of the Center).  Infographics provide that perspective. This is why the accompanying text alongside Fisher’s map shows us how image and text can combine in an infographic to create a particular contextual viewpoint. This cautionary tale alerts us to the fact that, as fascinating and popular as infographics are, all of them are not to be taken at face value. This means that we must help our students analyze details of the infographic and investigate its sources.

Teaching infographics in technical communication classes allows us, then, this kind of rhetorical and cognitive perspective in context.  Thus, when I teach infographics, I not only use Cairo’s book on information visualizations, but I combine it with a traditional technical writing textbook that has chapters on graphs and charts. If we are going to teach infographics—this new highly nuanced visual quantitative genre—we must help our students learn about the brain and cognition but also about the traditional way that technical writers use visualizations to show graphs and charts.

I asked Arnheim once if cultural differences in the way people see discount innate perceptive senses.  He replied that, of course, there were differences in how cultures saw information, but that the basic position of a human on the plane of the earth sets up a horizontal/vertical axis that, together with our senses, orients us to the world around us.  Yes, some of us read from left to right and some do not; some of us see red as a warning color while others see it as a joyous, celebratory color.  But in The Power of the Center, which Arnheim said was his most advanced thinking on perception, he claimed that the key concept to remember was that of dynamic tensions. As Arnheim wrote, “The relation between the complexity of the full realized work and the most abstract visual formula of its essence reveals the full range of its meaning” (224 Power of the Center).

In my technical writing classroom, I attempt to teach my students this dynamic tension by asking my students to both interrogate and create infographics that direct tensions to particular parts, just as they could do in a rhetorical essay.  For me, this merging of the artistic and verbal arenas in the new genre of infographics yields a new kind of visual technical information that is in tune not only with both the visual and verbal imagination, but also helps us make more inroads to an increasingly visually-centered younger generation.

Bibliography

Arnheim, R.  (1979). Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Arnheim, R. (1988). The Power of the Center. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cairo, A.  (2013). The Functional Art:  An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization.  Berkeley CA: New Riders.

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