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(from left) The Visual Article: "The Future of Food, Wired/Carl De Torres; The Flow Chart: "Network," Bloomberg Businessweek/Jennifer Daniel; Useful Bait/Cheat Sheet: "Caffeine," Wired/Carl De Torres; Number Porn: "Overkill," Wired/Carl De Torres

Infographics are everywhere, explaining a complex world to us. They promise an “aha” moment of insight, but more often end up delivering a glistening chunk of eye-candy. Wired magazine calls its full-page infographics “Infoporn.” And for those who can’t get enough, Fast Company offers an “Infographic of the Day.”

Today, infographics play a vital role in conveying information, changing attitudes and empowering people to take action. A look at the wind map coded by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas (who now lead Google’s Big Picture data visualization group in Cambridge, Massachusetts) during tornado season might have a profound effect on where you choose to buy your next house. A chart created by Carl De Torres for Bill Gates’s blog, The Gates Notes, shows the percentage of various nations’ gross domestic product that is contributed as aid to developing countries—and tells you how well (or poorly) the United States is doing to meet the United Nations’ target. Climate change deniers in Congress could do worse than examining Jennifer Daniel’s infographic for Bloomberg Businessweek on the rising cost of natural disasters.

So what is an infographic, anyway? At its most basic, an infographic combines data and pictures to communicate an idea. Using color, type, layout, text, icons and numbers to visualize data, infographics create a unique kind of narrative by organizing information to suggest a story with a beginning, middle and end. Because infographics help us find patterns, spot trends and comprehend complex data easier, they turn information into insight. In the process, infographics have become their own design trend as publishers attempt to transform raw statistics into visualizations that are meaningful and memorable.

And that’s why “everyone wants to do one,” designer Carl De Torres says. De Torres, who spent four years creating infographics at Wired before opening his own design studio in Oakland, California, claims, “Infographic is the buzzword of the year. I actually spend a lot of my day talking clients out of infographics.”

De Torres begins the process of designing an infographic by “looking for outliers,” he says. For his reimagining of the NBA Hall of Fame for ESPN The Magazine, De Torres asked, “Who is the worst guy; who is the best guy? You have to make the ends of the spectrum clear.”

When it comes to visualizing information, there is a massive range of presentation styles, from illustrative to scientific to dynamic to authoritative, De Torres explains. But the designer is guided by the fundamental constraints of the data, whether it’s numerical, geographic, temporal or some novel combination of metrics. No matter what the form is, De Torres’s goal is to “create something honest and effective. Being honest means developing a visual design that suits the data as well as entices the eye.”

Having cut his teeth at Wired, De Torres says, “I understand all too well the desire to hyper-design things. If that balance is skewed one way or the other, you either have a boring infographic or design masturbation.” To avoid falling into the trap of over-designing infographics, De Torres says, “I try to stay away from trends, keep things simple and let the data guide me. Being attuned to this dynamic makes your infographics more effective.”

Jennifer Daniel is a triple threat. With a background as a journalist, illustrator and graphic designer, Daniel applies each distinct discipline to the infographics she takes on, and it shows. The range of infographics Daniel has produced, first in three years at Bloomberg Businessweek, and most recently at the New York Times, where she leads the graphic design department in San Francisco, is wide and deep.

(from left) The Timeline: Killing Bin Laden," Bloomberg Businessweek/Jennifer Daniel and Barrett Sheridan; Data Visualization: Wind Maps/Fernanda Viégas 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

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 sam@wordstrong.com.

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