“Infosthetics” /

by John Rousseau

Information is power; so it’s not surprising that from Wired to “GOOD” to PowerPoint decks everywhere, we live in the golden age of the “infographic.” Amidst the apparent information overload, these “graphics” clarify complex ideas and visualize important relationships. They give persuasive form to otherwise abstract data. And at times, they may even shape debate or inform public opinion about the critical issues of our times. And that’s all good—and nothing new except the fact that we have adopted a stylish new term for “diagram.”

What is new is the proliferation of infographics that exist for the sake of design—a trend that displays a fetish for the aesthetics of information design and yet is ironically at odds with actual information or public service. Let’s look at the infographic “Dead Man Walking” designed by Amanda Buck for GOOD online. If you can get past the melodrama and the inevitable image of Sean Penn in prison overalls, you will undoubtedly be moved by the real shoes that represent pedestrians who were unfortunately killed while “happily” attempting to “traverse” the “dangerous” cities in question. Walking, like diagramming, is neither as fashionable nor as poignant as traversing. At least they were happy, poor souls.

The problem with this design is that the display of concentric circles makes it much harder to discern at a glance which cities are factually most dangerous for pedestrians—both overall and compared to one another. Atlanta is the most dangerous place to walk in sneakers, which you will see if you spend a few moments traversing the arcs. Los Angeles, on the opposite side, is considerably less dangerous, despite the fact that its section is the same size (you have to count the shoes—or in the case of LA, the flip-flops). Such is the conceit of much contemporary information design: where a simple bar chart would have provided an intuitive and more accurate display, the emphasis was placed on form over function. Where is Edward Tufte when you need him? Hopefully somewhere in Asia, and not traversing Detroit.

Be careful out there.

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