Infographics, or information graphics, have been around for as long as man has been able to draw. The earliest cave paintings are a form of infographic as they pictorially depict the life and activities of our very distant ancestors. Thousands of years later, we still readily understand them. The infographic underwent significant development in the 20th Century and an infographic, rather than written or spoken language, has been used in our first communication effort with extraterrestrials!
Infographics are widely used in our society, in mathematics, mapmaking, signage, news media, education, travel, medicine, politics and even religion. No aspect of our lives is untouched by the application of infographics.
So why are they so popular?
Infographics convey knowledge and advice, even mandatory orders, in a form which the human brain readily recognizes and associates with the information behind the representation. This is known as visualization.
Before man learned to read and write, he drew. Modern written language is itself derived from the development of drawings which became standardized into symbols and in turn, into recognizable letters and numerals we now recognize. Hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt are a good example of an intermediate written language which revolves around symbology and formed the basis for the development of vowels and consonants.
Graphical representation renders itself far more accessible and understandable by people; whether they understand the language of the designer or not. The reason why people accept so much information via infographics compared to text is explained by how our brains have formed over time. During man’s early development, we were not equipped with language, never mind the ability to read and write. Man primarily looked at the world around him, his eyes being the primary sense with smell, sound, touch and taste running distant also rans. Visuals are how our brains are “hard wired” to “read” as our default operating system – what we can visualize is our primary mechanism for taking in information as a consequence. A baby must learn to speak, must be taught to read and write but, they have no issue in drawing as soon as they can hold a crayon.
As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, which is why, possibly, the most important infographic is currently aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972 and is currently journeying through outer space – the first vessel to leave the solar system. It contains the Pioneer Plaque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque); a pictorial representation of humankind, our planet and solar system and where we are located. This is a powerful testament to the universal understanding provided by infographics which are not restricted by language barriers.
Visual language is universal for those who can see; imagine your car journey without graphical road signs for instance. Graphical images can be very quickly assimilated by the human brain, and render a meaning which is clear without the need to read text. In part, modern infographics are so readily understandable because we have become educated by the basic grammar of visual language. We know, for instance, that a bar running through a left-pointing arrow means, “Don’t turn left” for instance. Possibly the most important development in road signs has been the stick figure drawings that represent people (originating from the Munich Olympics in 1972).
Newspapers have probably done more to lay the basis for our understanding and appreciation of infographics than any other medium. In the 1970’s, British newspapers started to develop a series of charts and graphical representations to convey information in an understandable format to readers. This was rapidly picked up by USA Today when it launched in 1982, and spread to other mainstream media publications such as Time magazine.
Infographics have not been without their critics. Newspaper critics and traditionalists deride the “chart junk” which populates papers and the media. They argue that infographics demean the information being conveyed. At the same time, the idea that infographics are artistic has also received derisory comments from the art world. The idea that an infographic is where “art meets science”, is not widely accepted in the journalistic or art world, but nevertheless, the reading public clearly appreciates the graphical, and sometimes comical, representation of information.
What of the future? A notable exception to the long list of infographic applications is in television. Television has only recently embraced the notion of the infographic for transmission of frequently complex and large volumes of data in a visual fashion. Perhaps this is because television itself is a visual medium relaying information in real-time, i.e. without the need for a fast data burst to our brains. This does lead to the question – how much more powerful could a televised infographic be in relaying information to people? The televisual infographic is under development at this time, but how successful they will be we shall have to discover for ourselves as they start being broadcast on our screens.”