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Top of the Charts
Three masters on the art and craft of the infographic

by Sam McMillan

(from left) The Timeline: Killing Bin Laden," Bloomberg Businessweek/Jennifer Daniel and Barrett Sheridan;
Data Visualization: Wind Maps/Fernanda Vi
égas and Martin Wattenberg;
The Photo Infographic: "This Little Piggy: 42 Markets Served by Swine," Bloomberg Businessweek/Jennifer Daniel;
The Map: "Are We Airborne Yet?." Wired/Carl De Torres

Daniel approaches some projects as a reporter, starting with research and then crafting her findings into an illustration or a photograph. Some projects require the inverse, “an illustrative approach in which I think about the problem visually and then execute as an editor. This means applying the principles of design to the solution—providing context, describing relationships, revealing patterns.” As Daniel explains, “I don’t think of myself as a designer, illustrator or reporter—these are roles that no longer have distinction.”

Typically, the production of infographics at Bloomberg Businessweek involved a team that included a writer or editor responsible for the text, an art director, a graphics editor and a graphic designer. An editor would suggest an initial approach and an art director might lay out a spread, but the designer could change the rules of design, which would then entail a shift in layout. As executions flew back and forth, Daniel says, the editor would remind every-one of the point of the story and what they were trying to communicate. As graphics editor, Daniel described her role in the process as “applying the rigor of the data to the topic. You have to see the patterns through the form and find interesting pieces of information to reveal through the structure of the infographic.”

At Google’s Big Picture data visualization group, Martin Wattenberg says his goal is to “help Google, and the world, by making information transparent, understandable, useful and beautiful.” Scary, too: the group’s Digital Attack Map, which depicts global denial of service attacks designed to overload web servers and make them unavailable to legitimate users, uses animated graphics to convey a visceral sense of threat. A quite different map of trending videos on YouTube shows what we are watching across the nation at any given moment (sports highlights and cat videos, most likely). The group’s Google+ Ripples infographic is a social media marketer’s dream come true, as it depicts how content can spread from person to person across the wilds of the social media landscape.

Wattenberg believes web-based infographics should offer users a personal dialog with the data. “You want to visualize the shape of the data and let people find their own entry points,” he says. One example he notes is the NameVoyager. Using publicly availably data, Wattenberg created a web infographic that shows the rising and waning popularity of first names, dating back to the 1880s. The infographic supplements The Baby Name Wizard, a book Wattenberg’s wife Laura wrote to help expectant parents choose just the right name for their child.

“Because it’s interactive,” Wattenberg explains, “you can drill into the visualization in a way that’s unique to you. The topic should engage you, make you think and encourage you to talk to other people.” Nine years after he created it, “I still meet people who found their child’s name on the NameVoyager,” Wattenberg says.

When it takes an interactive graphic to help us choose a baby’s name, it tells us that these are complicated times we live in. Chaotic. And time-constrained. Drowning in a tsunami of data, faced with complex issues and competing claims on our attention, we seek solace in the simple. We want our world quantified, stratified, enumerated, organized and elucidated. Infographics, with their editorialized take on data, not only deliver content to us in bite-sized chunks, they almost come pre-digested. In a world of fast-food news, the worst infographics offer the visual equivalent of empty calories, while the best provide food for thought. ca McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at