The Difference Between Infographics And Their Simpler Cousins

Two data visualization pros explain why sometimes an infographic simply isn’t one—and that’s okay.

At Co.Design, we get tons of pitches for our "Infographic of the Day" feature. A good 90% of them don’t make the cut because they aren’t really infographics. You’ve probably seen them: long, scrollable JPEGs with a lot of numbers and text and clever art. As the mainstreaming of data visualization raises the bar of expectations for envisioning information, it’s become fashionable to turn up our collective noses at these simpler artifacts by calling them "infauxgraphics." But Kim Rees and Dino Citraro, founders of the data visualization firm Periscopic, have come up with a more accurate, non-pejorative, even appreciative term for them: digital posters. Here’s why that matters.

Sure, debating what is or isn’t a "real" infographic can quickly become as pointless as arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin. But as Citraro and Rees argue, drawing meaningful distinctions between clearly different forms of communication allows us to draw out the strengths in those differences. An "infauxgraphic" sounds like an impostor, trying (and failing) to pass itself off as something better. But a "digital poster" is simply itself: a simple, bold collection of graphic statements. Sure, many of them are hideous. But so are many infographics. "The method itself is never right or wrong," Citraro tells Co.Design. "The only thing that warrants a value judgement is the method’s effectiveness for conveying information to an audience."

So what are digital posters good for, as design artifacts? Even Citraro finds it difficult to avoid damning with faint praise. "If neither your message nor your audience is complex, digital posters can be an excellent tool for communicating," he says. Ah, so if you want to talk simply to simpletons, here’s the ticket! But if you think of digital posters with the same expectations as any other kind of poster—a form of graphic communication that, like any other, contains masterpieces as well as reams of crap—it becomes easier to see what they excel at. "The nature of a digital poster is to effectively convey a simple message without overloading the viewer," Citraro says.

As an example, he points to the not-really-infographics that Google offers as part of their "Databoard for Research Insights." "I think they do a good job [as digital posters] because the insights are brief and to the point," he says. "In many cases, their audience isn’t expecting a wider metaphor, and doesn’t require one." In other words, density isn’t everything. What’s more, digital posters and infographics can be effectively combined—especially in interactives, like Periscopic’s own inequality.is.

The bottom line? "Digital posters are not bad," Citraro asserts. "Sometimes their implementation is, but poor implementation is a reflection of the crafter, not the craft." Let posters be posters and infographics be infographics. And instead of mixing up apples and oranges, let’s just try to make them all tastier.

[Read Citraro & Rees’s essay here]

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9 Comments

  • Sanat Patel

    Our Perspective App  is simpler than infographics But Much richer in content with amazing interactive motion charts.
    You don't need a designer or programmer, just be able to cut'n'paste a spreadsheet.
    The advantage we have is any time the underlying data is updated you simply refresh the charts in seconds, while an infographic has to be re-rerendered by hand by a professional.
    I'd put them in this order Perspective > Infographics > jpg when it comes to ease and depth of information.

    Give it a try, would love to get some feedback on your use case @pixxa:twitter
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/ap...

  • Randy Krum

    John, thanks for building on the original guest post on Cool Infographics!  

    The opinions behind "What Makes an Infographic Cool?" are very diverse, and Kim & Dino's essay was only one great post in a series from infographic experts that i have invited to share their opinions.  So far, there have been 13 posts in the series (more to come), and you can read them all here:http://www.coolinfographics.co...

  • Shabareesh

    I thought the whole purpose of info graphics was to present information in an easy to understand form taking least amount of pain reading difficult to understand graphs and paragraphs.
    Passing on complex information in a simple graphical manner is the purpose. If it succeeds, then it is an info graphic.
    The article has left me more confused :-(

  • Eric_B_Rice

    Like the other commenters, I really felt the lack of a paragraph discussing the meaningful difference between infographics and digital posters here. 
    I'm going to hazard a guess, though, and say that the difference is as simple as the difference between a spreadsheet and a chart - the digital poster presents textual descriptions of data or conclusions drawn from data along with pretty pictures, while the infographic presents the data in some interpretive graphical form. 

    The "paths to the white house" graphic might be a good example - saying "Obama has 400 ways to win, while Romney has 70" (or whatever it was) is informative in itself, but they took the extra step of visualizing those combinations so you can see interactions within the combinatorics and draw more conclusions than just "Obama has a better chance" - you could actually start to derive strategy from it. A poster would have given me the conclusion with a pretty picture, but the infographic presented the data in an interpretive way that allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions from it. 

  • Sam Gordon

    Can we get the other side, a good example of what a real infographic is? This story focuses on telling us that what we commonly know as infographics are really just "digital posters" but doesn't tell us what differentiates the two.

  • eflorida

    Seems like a miss to not even really mention or give an example of an actual infographic. I appreciate this analysis of the distinction of digital posters, but what's the other side? What is a true infographic?

  • dogbert

    I'd have to say that the digital poster is more to my liking than the infographic. I'd say I see it the opposite; Infographics are gussied up digital posters. Like the difference between a photograph or painting of Manhattan and that of a map of streets, sights, or subway stops. Aesthetic appeal vs. functional. Left brain vs. right brain.

  • Chris Steib

     So, then, what's an example of an infographic used in marketing or communication that would live up to Tufte?