This week saw one of those rare moments when a graphic designer appeared in a mainstream tv show. In this case the heavy-weight Newsnight programme played host to not one, but two designers, one of which was (presenter Kirsty Wark’s words) “the legendary” Neville Brody. He faced off against David McCandless, a well known journalist/designer who specializes in info-graphics.
This encounter, nicely summarised on DesignWeek, has prompted a new frenzy of blogging and twittering on whether or not information graphics has become just another fashion trend.
Recently info-graphics has been on the rise, not just in the traditional, data analysis kind-of fashion, but as a means of self expression, firstly Nicholas Feltron’s much admired and copied annual statistical report which has almost inevitably led to Phil Gyford’s spoof take on personal data capture.
Whilst it’s definitely a trending style in design at the moment, but displaying information in a more accessible, a more designed way, is as old as the pen and paper.
The Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library I visited, co-incidentally, last weekend, showcased maps through the ages, comparing the way that artists have subverted the map’s primary function, of navigation, to promote political and social agendas and messages. It’s a clear lesson from history on the power of design to mis-inform.
Here’s my take, graphic design is at it’s purest, the communication of a message. The message for info-graphics is, most likely but not always, data, and making that data easy to read and understand. It’s the classic case of function over form, ie. anything that gets in the way of the user understanding the information should be sacrificed in favour of usability.
The design process involves making decisions about what to emphasise and what to leave out, and it’s vital that when visualizing data that the core message, what the numbers actually mean. That’s not to say, of course, that info-graphics can’t be beautiful, McCandless’ book ‘Information is Beautiful‘ has a prime position on my bookshelf, but that when artful styling starts to cloud the message then all hope is lost.