Infographics: Not Dead Yet

As the one or two dedicated readers of this blog can attest, my affection for infographics waxes and wanes on a regular basis.

Of late, I’ve been rather down on this graphic approach to conveying complex information. Too often, what information value is contained in the graphic is overwhelmed by cuteness, triteness, or both.

So when one Allison Morris inquired via my contact page (rarely, alas, a reliable source of useful interaction) about promoting an infographic she’d worked on, I was skeptical.  (It was a good sign, though, that she had in fact read at least one post on this blog.)

My fears, happily, were unjustified. I don’t know anything about OnlineClasses.org, but I do like their  flowchart for young jobseekers about what to post or not on their social media accounts. Well done, Allison et al!

To Post or Not to Post To Post or Not to Post Infographic

The Tyranny of Images: Why Instagram and Pinterest Worry Me

This photo has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of this blog post. Which in this case, oddly, is precisely the point.

Today’s news that the mobile photo-sharing platform Instagram has been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion underscores a trend that’s been gnawing at me for the last few months. Mark Zuckerberg clearly understands that images are an increasingly important element in social discourse. So do the founders of the visually oriented Pinterest, which in less than a year has leapt from obscurity to become the third most popular social network on the web.

Why should this worry me? I’m a reasonably visual guy. I’ve been a serious photographer since my childhood, and my years as a magazine editor taught me the importance of balancing words with images.

I guess I fear that the emphasis now being given to the visual is upsetting that balance.  Increasingly, words alone are seen as inadequate or insufficiently appealing. As Joel Friedlander says, explaining why he plunks a large photo into the top of every post on his blog, “it’s a given: blog articles attract more interest with photographs and other images.” Pinterest only intensifies this need for images. In fact, as Tony Hallet pointed out last month, if a blog post has no images, it essentially doesn’t exist in Pinterest’s eyes.

Knowing this, any blogger that wants to be read will find an image to go with the words. That’s great when an image enhances or reinforces the meaning of the words. But all too often it doesn’t. Finding a picture that explains an abstract concept is difficult, especially if you limit yourself to images you have a clear-cut right to use. As a result, bloggers frequently face this choice: go without an image, or settle for one that looks good but has little to do with your topic.  Increasingly, they will have no reasonable option but the latter. It’s the tyranny of the image.

I agree, as Tony Hallet says, that “it’s arguably the photographer, the illustrator, the graphic designer, maybe even the infographic creator who will hold the key to much of what lies ahead.” It’s another question, though, whether the key opens the right door.

An Infographic on the Right Track: Grad School to Google

Though I was once a big fan of infographics, my ardor has cooled of late. Too many of the examples I see just look like clones of each other. But now and then I run across an infographic that is distinctly different, and worth sharing.

Case in point: this interactive graphic from OnlinePhD.org, which steps you through Google’s growth year by year (thanks to Google Tutor for the lead.) The drawing is not outstanding, but the interactivity and engagement are.

Created by Online PhD

Where I think this infographic is on the right track is in suiting itself to the computer. Most other infographics I see are like huge wall posters that you must enlarge and scan up and down to read easily. This one instead lets you click through to a new panel of information. Much friendlier.

I’ve attempted a bit of research on the genesis of this infographic and how it was built, but have come up empty-handed. If you know something more about it, why not share it in the comments?

More on Destination, Identity, and the Future of Content

Thanks no doubt to a helpful boost from Alexis Madrigal, my November 8 post, “The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity,” found a passel of new readers this week. One of them was constructively skeptical of my argument.

What does it really mean, he asked, to say the future of content is in its identity? Or that content must be imbued with the brand? However people find content, he argued, they “always wind up back at the brand to read it.” He also took issue with my suggestion that the container—the original site of publication—doesn’t matter anymore. As he pointed out, it does matter “if you want to keep people hanging around on your site reading more beyond the link that brought them there.”

Because his objections are too good to leave in the obscurity of a comment on a week-old entry, and because my MUD obligations limit the amount of time I can spend on this blog, I’m addressing his comment in today’s post.

It’s possible, of course, that I overstated my case considerably, which one is wont to do when blogging. But people don’t always wind up back at the brand to read content. Like my commenter, I read a lot of content in my RSS reader. But unlike him, I don’t go back to the source to read most of it. Thus, for me, the experience not only divorces the content from its original container, but also strips away much of its original formatting. Others may read content through Instapaper or Flipbook, which can similarly deracinate content. And I think this way of reading will only grow more common with time. (UPDATE: That should be Flipboard. And reading through it just now, I realized it actually does a good job of preserving original branding.)

It was certainly rhetoric more than conviction that prompted me to say that containers don’t matter anymore. Done well, they can still lure readers in and keep them hanging around. But containers are not nearly as good at containment in the digital era as they were in the analog. Because it is so easily copied and transmitted, content (not to mention readers) now can much more readily drift away.

When I suggested that, in response, content must be imbued with brand, I was again, no doubt, overstating. Publishers are obviously free to let their content wander off like wayward dogies without any identifying brand on their flanks. But a publisher concerned with promoting and propagating its brand would be wise to ensure that the content carries some form of brand identity. That can be done in a variety of ways: instilling a brand voice into the content (The Atlantic was once superb at this—you could always recognize its voice, no matter the author), incorporating brand references (Wired‘s Wired vs. Tired, for instance), or employing an identifiably distinctive point of view (Reason, perhaps?).

It used to be that publishers and their editors didn’t have to worry so much about this problem. When an article was contained within a print magazine, the context was enough to brand the content. But online, that context is much weaker. To me, at least, infusing your brand directly into your content seems like a smart response.

A Word Every Publisher Should Know

Skeuomorph. It’s one of those words you have to look up several times before you can remember it. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines it nicely: “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” Some of the examples the entry cites are helpful: fake stitching on a plastic product once made of leather, spokes in an automobile hubcap, or, one of my own bugbears, tiny, useless handles on small maple syrup jugs.

The skeuomorphic design of iCalWhy should publishers care about skeuomorphs? Because as they shift themselves and their products into the digital age, one of the most important questions they must ask is whether to evoke the functionality of the old forms of their output or leap wholly into the new ones. There isn’t a single right answer. But if they don’t ask the question, they will probably get it wrong.

Though it deals with computer user interface design rather than publication design, one of the most helpful discussions of skeuomorphism I’ve read is from John Siracusa’s landmark review of OS X Lion. In it, he describes the odd nostalgia of Apple’s design of its iCal and Address Book applications. They evoke the look of their old analog counterparts so faithfully that they include stitching, torn paper, and a leather look. Though it might give users a sense of familiarity, the look actually impairs functionality, as Siracusa says of the Mac calendar:

 Usually, each page contains a month, but there’s no reason for a virtual calendar to be limited in the same way. When dealing with events that span months, it’s much more convenient to view time as a continuous stream of weeks or days.

Even worse, says Siracusa, is Apple’s Address Book, which “goes so far in the direction of imitating a physical analog that it starts to impair the identification of standard controls.”

For traditional, analog publishers, the most immediate application of skeuomorphism is to the process of going digital. As I noted last week, one challenge for companies like Ziff Davis Enterprise in going digital-only is whether they should retain the old functional metaphors of print—the page turns, the layouts, the display ads—or drop them in favor of inherently digital functionality.

But even for natively digital publishers, functionality will evolve, perhaps more rapidly than ever. As new ways of delivering and presenting content arise, will they look backwards and mask the new with the familiar veneer of the old? Or will they look resolutely forward and ask readers to adjust to the new in order to gain its full benefits?

The point here is not that skeuomorphism is inherently bad. It can be a useful and even compelling way to help people understand new functionalities. But in going digital, you need to consider the difference between when looking backwards is really helpful and when it’s just a sentimental gesture. So on your next digital product design, don’t just think different—think skeuomorph.