An Infographic is not Accurate Just Because It Looks Good

While I’ve been in higher education for the last seven years, I started my career in a middle school classroom.  I remember teaching social studies and often using the KWL method with the students.  Accordingly, I would ask the them what they already knew about the subject that we planned to study next, and we would create a massive (or minute) list on the board.  Quite often, the items that students recalled came from a movie or an episode on the History or Discovery channel.  Some of what they remembered was accurate, but not all.  Frequently, their knowledge fit into the category of historical fiction, which was expected, given that many of the movies related to the subject (the Civil War, for example) fit into that genre.  What became clear to me was that teaching the subject required teaching something new to students, but also helping them to unlearn some of the “visual facts” that already existed in their minds.  In fact, students often enjoyed learning about the subjects because of the high-interest film version of the events.  After reading about these events, many also enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences between what they were learning and what they saw on the screen.  They didn’t need to stop liking the films, but they did need to re-categorize that information, sometimes moving it from the non-fiction to the fiction shelves in their minds.

Images stick.  Think back to some of the first movies that you saw as a child.  If you are like me, you can conjure up at least one or two vivid scenes from that movie.  The same is true for many of us when it comes to still pictures, commercials, and multimedia messages that we’ve encountered over the years.  There is a reason that companies invest large amounts of money into creating image-rich advertisements and messages about their products and services.  It is because they are effective.  This is why information and media literacy are such important skills today. If we consider traditional literacy important so that students can function in a world of print, then it is equally important to help cultivate literacies that prepare us to live in a world of multimodal text (texts using more than one type of message: print, audio, video, images, etc.).

Over the past decade, we saw a rapid increase of infographics as a popular example of multimodal texts, and I’m delighted to see them.  In fact, I collect infographics, especially those dealing with topics related to eduction or digital culture. At their best, infographics convert pieces of data into a vivid, concise and high-interest knowledge visualization.  They are wonderful teaching and learning tools, and inviting people to create their own is an excellent way to help learners work at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as they make sense of information about a given topic.

Just as there are affordances, there are also limitations when it comes to infographics.  When students started typing and submitting papers using a word processor, I noticed something interesting.  When you type a rough draft on a word processor and print it out, it looks clean and complete, even if the content is far from clean and complete.  Visually, the paper looks good.  If anyone takes the time to critically read the paper, then it becomes apparent that it is not a finished product.  The same is true with infographics.  The data in an infographic is no more or less accurate because it is visual, regardless of how good it looks.  Just like that draft in the word processor, the visual rhetoric of an infogrphic requires that one read it carefully and critically. Toward that end, here are some of the questions that we might want to consider asking during and/or after reading an infographic.

  • Is the data accurate?
  • Are there unstated assumptions?
  • What biases are present (not that biases are necessarily bad, but surfacing them is still valuable)?
  • Who created the infographic?  Does that person or organization have a mission or agenda (Again, this not necessarily bad, but it helps us to understand the context.)?
  • What sources did the creator use?
  • Did the creator provide access to those sources so that I can check it out for myself?
  • What is fact and what is opinion?  How do they support the opinions and substantiate the facts?
  • What relevant data is excluded (Since infographics are usually intended to be concise, much is usually excluded.  This is both an affordance and limitation of infographics.)?
  • How do the graphics and how do the design decisions influence the way that I and other readers might think about the topic?  How would the message change with a different visual representation?

Many of us, myself included, do not take the time to ask many of these questions when we read infographics.  Often, I read them for entertainment as much as information, also for examples of different ways to visually represent ideas.  And yet, infographics are often educational tools, communicating messages intended to stick with us, even to influence the way that we think or act.  At minimum, they serve to draw greater attention to a topic.  That alone is a means of influence, elevating the significance of a topic by prompting us to think about it a bit more than we did before, leaving visual residue in our minds that is often easier to recall than text.

Similarly, I’m not sure that infographics are usually designed in a way that encourages us to analyze and ponder.  Quite often, they are made for quick consumption, intended to gain the attention of the “readers” for a minute or two before they move on to something else.  To read such a visual critically may require that we discipline ourselves to pause, think, even research a bit; and that is a difficult thing to do.