Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Infographics

Baby

How prevalent is our cultural obsession with data? Our children are now crawling with it, according to a new commercial by IBM.

"Data Baby" is a gorgeous spot, to be sure, directed with typical finesse by Fast Company favorites Motion Theory. And it's not the only commercial to alert us to the fact that everything around us is a series of numbers and patterns to be combed, categorized and visualized--this piece is part of a larger series by IBM, claiming that our planet is "alive with data." But really? "This is a baby generating data in a neonatal ward?" No. It's a baby! The only data it's generated so far is sitting inside that diaper.

Hide your kids! The data-viz nerds are coming for our children!

How I Met Your Mother

Infographics and data visualization have reached some kind of tipping point in our world, agreed four of the discipline's smartest designers at the Interactive Infographics panel at SXSW Tuesday afternoon. Casey Caplowe of GOOD, Ben Fry, creator of Processing, Shan Carter of the The New York Times Graphics Department and Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen all agreed that they'd seen some kind of sea change when it came to people understanding what they do. Infographics are so mainstream that there are even jokes about infographics on shows like How I Met Your Mother, where the characters hold an intervention with someone who has an unhealthy relationship with charts and graphs (hmmm, sound familiar?). Of course we can't prove this global obsession with data-viz scientifically or anything...but maybe someone can make an infographic about that?

infographic

But in our thirst for data, have we forgotten that infographics aren't just numbers, icons and pretty colors? That they still need to tell a compelling narrative? Actually, all panelists agreed, the best place to start when it came to crunching data was not by combing our infants for numbers (in fact, I think most doctors will agree one should not comb infants at all). Carter had a quite revolutionary method for finding his information: Picking up the phone. Yes, most of the New York Times' award-winning infographics are researched, by a team of about 30 people, who do their reporting the old-fashioned way. It's true, said Fry, it's always better to take a real world approach that doesn't include an Excel document. "If you start with data, you'll end up with something that looks like data." And as beautiful as he is, let's hope it doesn't look like Data Baby, either.

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  • Peter Ladwig

    I have to disagree with you, as an infographic lover. It's true that infographics don't tell a narrative; it's the price designers pay for making information entertaining and accessible to Joe Sixpack. Of course if anybody wanted to learn anything more about what they're reading they could Google it. It's the beauty of the Internet.

    The real problem with infographics is journalists' and audiences' poor understanding of statistics. Does "59% of the public does so-and-so" actually mean anything? How big was the sample size? Who conducted this study? And then there's the problem with survey methodology in general.

    Before you rip on infographics (which have the potential to be totally rad) rip on everyone else for accepting any information they come across as fact.