Information Overload? Infographics to the Rescue

A Winter Workshop at Tufts in January highlights the best ways to create and use infographics
A graphic showing lines intersection, representing the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. A Winter Workshop at Tufts in January highlights the best ways to create and use infographics
Charles Joseph Minard showed the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812—a classic of infographics from 1869.
December 16, 2019

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Information is everywhere in this fast, mobile-driven world. Hail a ride-share service, comparison shop online, assemble a bookcase—even plan a cancer-treatment regimen—and chances are, engaging visual displays have helped you process the relevant information.

What’s the process behind the careful design of sharing information through graphics? And how do these infographics help our society? “The best infographics tell clear, compelling stories about relationships in our world—relationships that might otherwise remain invisible,” said Charles Gibbons, a lecturer in the Graphic Design Certificate Program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts.

Gibbons will be exploring the principles behind good infographics in Visualizing Information, a Winter Workshop enrolling now that will be held over two evenings in January at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Gibbons about the most important lesson for students in his workshop, the most creative infographic his students have produced, and how he teaches using that famous illustration of the Napoleonic campaign of 1812.

Tufts Now: What’s the most creative example you have seen of a student producing an infographic under your instruction?

Charles Gibbons: It’s been my privilege to see some truly fantastic and imaginative work in class, so picking one example is hard. One that I love to tell people about involves a student who redesigned the Massachusetts state-wide election ballots so that voters vote by selfie pose: each candidate or question is associated with a gesture that the voter has to mimic on-camera, and then the system would recognize and record the gesture. Simple enough.

But the student did two versions: one with simple poses that almost anyone can model, and another that discriminates against voters—and thus suppresses votes—by requiring outlandish poses. This student is a trained contortionist, and she served as the model in her voting system’s photo examples, and then performed the examples in class.

While it sounds goofy, she demonstrated ways that information-gathering instruments contain bias and can exclude populations, sometimes intentionally and sometimes less so, and a visceral way that stuck with everyone who saw it.

When you teach students the principles of information design, what strikes them most?

They’re surprised to learn the principles are so few and simple. Begin by knowing your audience and checking your own assumptions. Research everything, even if you already know it. Provide context for what we see. Depict measurable quantities in measured ways. Rely on simple hierarchies of space, type, and color to guide the audience. Everything else we do in class is about putting these principles to work.

What do you most hope that participants take away from your workshop on visualizing information?

The key takeaway is that communicating with data/information can take almost any form—physical or experiential, digital or analog, etc. The best form is whatever will have the greatest effect on our audiences.

One of the most often-cited examples of “infographics” is the Minard map of Napoleon’s Russia campaign in 1812. When you are introducing students to information design, is there another resource you find particularly helpful as a way to guide students into the discipline?

I always show Minard’s map, especially as we introduce the course via Edward Tufte’s clear, efficient, precise trinity of hallmarks, which acknowledge that data visualization has evolved dramatically since 1869—especially now that the audience can interact with them and partially shape the stories they encounter.

I like to contrast the Menard map with graphics from a recent Caritas annual report [PDF], in which everyday objects and scenes are translated into infographics. Great as the Minard map is, it doesn’t make a rhetorical leap to court its audience the way the Caritas example does.

We get a keen sense of the population this group serves and get a small glimpse of the world in which they live, which makes the data that much more important. Making infographics out of used chewing gum seems simple but thinking to do so requires real imagination and engagement and empathy, which is truly powerful.

For more information on this and other Winter Workshops, visit the University College website. In addition to Visualizing Information, courses are also available on topics like landscape painting, portrait drawing, and still life painting.