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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]