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, 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!

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, 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.

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?

Writing, Photography, and the Art of Thinking Visually

As some of my recent posts suggest, I’m a big fan of adding visual elements to written content, whether with infographics, illustrations, or photos. For the last few weeks, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not putting too much stress on visual media. The graphic arts are brilliant tools for communication, yes, but words are every bit their match.Camera with "words" in lens

What started me worrying about this matter was a casual comment by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis. In his opening for an article on the quite different subject of photography’s potential to mislead, he made a “painful” admission.  There are times, he wrote, “when photos can tell more of a story than words could ever express.”

Sometimes the urge for a good lead makes you say things you don’t quite mean. But even if Ellis believes his claim, I’m not buying it. Writing can tell a story just as powerfully as a photo. But that’s only true if the writer learns to see and write in a visual way.

One of the reasons a photograph can seem so powerful is that it captures details of an event that many news or business writers might not think pertinent  or appropriate—a facial expression, the relation of people to their surroundings, the sense of place. But writers can see those same details. They just have to recognize their value and put them in their writing.

One writer who does so brilliantly is Steve Coll. Here is his opening paragraph from “The Casbah Coalition” in the April 4th issue of The New Yorker:

The office of the Prime Minister of Tunisia is situated in a three-story white-washed building with an arched Moorish entry. It faces north onto the Casbah, a plaza in the old quarter of Tunis. The view from the Prime Minister’s window is normally serene, taking in a tiled fountain and pruned ficus trees, but, by the afternoon of a day in late February, thousands of citizens had transformed the Casbah into what looked like a squatters’ camp. They had organized a round-the-clock sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and they were joined each weekend by large numbers of like-minded protesters. The fountain was completely covered by tents; ropes hoisted tarps from the trees.

This is visual writing, but it is not simply a snapshot of what the reporter saw. It sandwiches two views together—the ordinary serene picture of the Casbah with an extraordinary chaotic one. It shows the collision of stasis and change, a process of transformation unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not suggesting that writers don’t need or shouldn’t use photographs or other illustrations in their work. Rather, I’m arguing against two dangerous temptations for writers.

First, the simple availability of visual media should not constrain the visual element in our writing. It’s a false choice anyway: I suspect that if you can’t write visually, you won’t be very good at choosing graphics either.

Second, one medium is not inherently superior to the other. They are not categorically different, but lie along a continuum of representational media.

In the end, the key is learning to think with your eyes. The more you do, the better both your writing and the graphics you choose will be.

Three Stock Photography Pitfalls to Avoid

I’ve written recently about the need to use meaningful visuals to accompany your text. In passing, I mentioned the downsides of that frequent last resort, stock photography, but left it to an article by Heather Rubesch, elsewhere on the web, to provide details.

Photo of dragon © istockphoto/zlisjak

Stock photo: Here be a dragon

The controversy in the last week over the use—or misuse—of stock photographs by VegNews magazine suggests that a deeper examination of the pitfalls of stock photography is in order.

The magazine has evidently been in the habit of taking stock shots of meat-based meals and using them to illustrate articles about vegan dishes. In at least one case, they have acknowledged using Photoshop to eliminate the bones from an image of what they wished were vegan ribs but weren’t. Some vegans have been deeply offended by this practice. One vegetarian and editor even went so far as to call for the editorial awards VegNews received from Folio: magazine to be rescinded. That might be ever-so-slightly extreme, but it illustrates the strong feelings that stock photography can inadvertently generate.

Rather than dwell on the VegNews example, which has been exhaustively covered on the web, let’s look at a couple of other recent instances of stock-art misuse. They point out three common pitfalls of stock photography.

One of those pitfalls is when a strong relationship is implied between the subject of the stock art and the subject being illustrated. That’s what happened on a website touting the presidential potential of Newt Gingrich.  On its front page, an image of Gingrich and his wife is superimposed over a photograph of a racially diverse group of men and women waving American flags.  Though to the naive eye it might appear that the people pictured are actual Gingrich supporters, the shot in fact comes from Getty Images.  The effect, as Rubesch cautiously puts it, is “to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality.”  Did the site designer intend the people pictured to be seen as real Gingrich supporters? Probably not. But they were surely meant to reflect the kind of people who support him.

Gingrich 2012 Screen shot If the shot had conformed to the picture most people have of Gingrich’s supporters, its stock-house origins would probably have gone unremarked. But because the the association looked so unlikely, it triggered doubts (and some amusing parodies). The lesson here is to respect the generic nature of stock photography. The people in that picture aren’t real people—they were effectively turned into icons by Getty Images. But the way the designer used the photo, they have been reanimated into specific human beings: real, live supporters. This wouldn’t have happened with a drawing because the iconic nature of the art would be too obvious. But with a photograph, it’s all too easy to slip into deception.

Statue of Liberty Forever stampA second pitfall can open up when stock photographs are not in fact generic, but very specific—or seem to be. When the U.S. Postal Service went looking recently for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate a Forever stamp, they went to a stock art supplier for the image. The only problem, as the USPS discovered too late, was that the close-up was not of the actual Statue of Liberty, but of a replica in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, it helps to read the fine print. The Getty Images page for the photo, by photographer Raimund Linke, clearly states (now, at least) that the shot is of a replica statue in Las Vegas. If the website didn’t make the location of the statue clear when the postal service saw it, wouldn’t checking with Getty Images or Linke have been a good idea? No doubt the service would think so now.

The Gingrich site also highlights a third potential pitfall of stock shots: other people can use the same shots you do. This sometimes leads to memorable embarrassments: As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Gingrich crowd shot first appeared on a website for the late liberal democrat Ted Kennedy, accompanied by the phrase “we are the democratic majority.” The mind reels.

You can’t control who else uses stock images, so before you make your selection, ask yourself: What if your competitor, whether political or commercial, uses the same one? If that’s a concern, you may want to find an alternative to stock art.

In a perfect and well-funded world, stock art would never be needed. But the reality is that, from time to time, you will need to use it, and all too often when you’re on a critical deadline and can’t think clearly.  Tread carefully: As my own use of stock art above demonstrates, here be dragons.

UPDATE – April 26: As Paul Conley pointed out today via Twitter, when a stock photo is reused by enough people, it morphs from an embarrassment into a meme, as in the curious case of the Everywhere Girl.