Looking at Infographics with a Critical Eye

Infographics: Instant Information
If you’ve ever picked up a copy of the newspaper USA Today in the last several years, you would have probably seen at least one infographic even if you only looked at the front page. It is usually one of the first things I look at whenever I see a copy. I love how I can instantly get a nugget of information from an interesting visual. Rocco Penn describes the appeal of infographics,

The advantage that visualizations have over spreadsheets and articles is that they can present a message in a way that is more easily and enjoyably understood. Data is inherently boring to most if not put into digestible chunks and infographics allow for that to happen.

USA Today has been using them for years and now we’re seeing an explosion of infographics on the web. And now anyone make their own infographics (or data visualizations) and share them with the world. Awesome! But on the other hand, anyone can make and share their own infographic. Stop right there! The appeal of infographics is also what makes them potentially suspect. Chikodi Chima points this out in his article “How Infographics Jumped the Shark”.

 The Internet is a visual environment, and because infographics are visual before all else, even bad ones, they fit perfectly with the way we use the Internet. The human eye can take in much greater volume of information, more quickly than can our other senses. But this has also made infographics prime targets for overuse or abuse.

Taking a Closer Look
As teachers we are constantly reminding our students to be critical of websites, especially when gathering information for research. Students are often taken in by professional looking sites that are actually fake or misleading on purpose. Have you seen the site for the Pacific Tree Octopus? Or the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division (DMRD)? And if you’ve never seen The Onion (America’s Finest New Source), you are missing out on blatant, but very well produced, misrepresentations of information.

If anyone can create and share an infographic we must look at them with a critical eye and teach our students to do the same. Susan Brooks-Young refers to this in her article on tech activities for higher order thinking skills stating,

Infographics…are useful because they reduce lots of content into a readily understood format. However, it’s easy to use charts, graphs, and other visual representations to distort facts. The ability to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate infographics is a critical media literacy skill.

As with other sources, I will ask my students to consider

  1. Who created this?
  2. What is their purpose? (to entertain, inform, persuade?)
  3. What are their sources of data?
  4. Are those sources reliable?

I believe numbers 3 and 4 are the most challenging. Occasionally, you can find infographics with enough information to make a decision on reliability, however I have found infographics without any sources listed. And some of those that do list sources just list website home pages and not links to specific information. I think this will lead to good discussions with my students about how they use and analyze infographics. It will also help frame our expectations when I have my students create their own infographics.

Infographics are Fun, Too
Of course, we can also point out that some infographics are created for entertainment purposes and are fun to explore. Even visual.ly, which is an online space for creating and showcasing infographics, pokes some fun at infographics in its “Diagrams Rule: A Satirical Look at Infographics” which includes the following description,

A visual representation of data which ideally provide an instantly understandable representation of that data. Does this form of informational media make information more clear or does it muddle relevant data into an easy-to-understand yet potentially inaccurate site-bite? This easy-to-understand yet potentially inaccurate infographic explores infographic trends.

Diagrams Rule: A Satirical Look at Infographics

You could also have fun with REI’s Zombie Survival Gear and 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Tech Edition infographics, just to mention a few.

Additional Resources
The Best Infographics of 2011 So Far (Larry Ferlazzo
Creating Infographics with Students (Langwitches)

A Case Study In How Infographics Can Bend The Truth
The Do’s and Don’ts of Infographic Design

Are Infographics Ruining the Web?
Infographics Are Broken. We Can Do Better.
Evil Effects of Bad Infographics


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3 Responses to Looking at Infographics with a Critical Eye

  1. Frank Baker says:

    The media literacy/critical thinking questions would also be useful when analyzing/deconstructing infographics:
    1. who is the author?
    2. who is the audience?
    3. where was the infographic published?
    4. who is likely to read/consume it?
    5. what techniques are used to get attention; increase credibility?
    6. what information might be omitted and why?
    7. how might different people interpret this message differently?
    8. how might the design and info be deceptive and/or incorrect?
    9. where might I go to find additional information?
    10. how do I know this information is trustworthy and reliable?
    11. what can I do with this information?

  2. Matt Kelsey says:

    Infographics just seem like another medium we need to include if we’re teaching critical analysis, but I see them being using more in math and science classes. Where English teachers might analyze “A Modest
    Proposal” and incorporate an advertisement as a modern example, a stats teacher might have students analyze a table of data and then evaluate the accuracy of an infographic depicting that data. Infographics often seem to be used to convey stats, so some background there is necessary if we want to criticize not just the bias in an infographic but also the content.

  3. Garry Leroy Baker says:

    Thanks for the inspiring post! I have read about infographics and it is clear that they are useful in teaching history, which is my subject. Your explanations of infographics, information presentation, and understanding made me think about this a great deal more. I should be using tools like these more frequently in class. It makes me think that a teacher could almost generate an entire (short) monograph on many topics using only infographics. It would take readers longer to interpret the information and draw the links between the charts and graphs. However, meaning would be “owned” by the reader instead of distilled by the writer. What I found most valuable about your post is the clear list of drawbacks to be aware of when using, or generating, infographics. Infographics too often receive one-sided reviews.

    I will use the questions you suggest and the others listed by Frank Baker in his comment.

    Good luck.


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