Cliff Kuang (@cliffkuang) is the founding editor of Fast Company’s Co.Design, the publication’s site dedicated to the discussion of the intersection between business and design. Previously, Kuang has been an editor at I.D. magazine and The Economist. His work has been featured in Wired, Popular Science, and GOOD. We recently had a chance to chat with Kuang about a subject very close to home: infographics. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as where the industry is headed.
An excerpt of this interview appears in our upcoming book, Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling (Wiley, September 2012).
What do you think makes a good infographic?
There’s not just one thing that makes a good infographic. There are elements that the good ones possess:
1. Clarity of point of view
2. Consistency of vision
3. They are beautiful
Infographics are about telling stories through images. There should be an end point and a plot, and it’s all about how you convey it. Good graphics can stay with the metaphor longer. Good graphics are the ones where the messages aren’t always surprising but where the plot points are being told in a new way. Also, just because something is complex, varied, and adorned, doesn’t mean that it’s rich. It’s rare that you find good infographics that get two pieces right, but the last piece isn’t done well. The people who produce good infographics tend to get all three right.
What are some of the most common mistakes you come across when viewing infographics?
The most basic category mistake that people make is assuming that just because something is interesting to them, it’ll be interesting to others. People get wrapped up in the process; they confuse the depth of detail that they were willing to go to with the depth of detail other people are willing to go to for that information.
Essentially, all of your work will be judged in a half-second. I’m evaluating these things extremely quickly. It’s probably the same for other people who aren’t necessarily looking for a specific piece of information. You have to be able to convey something of meaning—and surprise quickly. The essence of design is that you can do this. Also, if you don’t know what you are trying to say, it’s hard to figure out how to do it.
Another common mistake is made by the companies that are producing these, specifically when they want to control the message. This is self-defeating. They win when they get the message interesting, not when they get the information right according someone to the company. It’s a negotiation that you’re making with your audience, and you need to make it on their terms—not your terms. People should start with a broader view; they should start with something that is interesting, makes someone’s day, and is useful. It’s the metaphorical parts that create value.
What do you see as the fundamental reason(s) behind the growth in popularity of bad infographics?
The proliferation of bad work will always be tied to the proliferation of good work. There will always be people who can’t recognize what makes bad things bad. But for others, I think that spending time looking at bad things can help you shape your perceptions of what is good. Being able to understand what makes things bad can be a lesson in why things are good.
What role do you believe design plays in terms of the quality of an infographic?
It is inextricable with the quality of the infographic. It’s hard to think about the content at a high level and not get the design right—and vice versa. If you raise the bar on one, the other should follow suit. Design is about asking the right question in a much more interesting way than it was originally posed.
What role do you believe illustration should play in infographic design?
I think illustrations can be very useful in measured doses, when used in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the point you are trying to make with the data. Sometimes bad graphics try to hide a lack of good content with by visually appealing to readers’ attention; there’s no hard and fast rule about that, but smart people are able to understand the fine line between enticement and trickery. Good illustrators are good at staying on the side of enticement and not trickery. Once you get into trickery, you betray someone’s trust.
What do you believe an infographic designer’s priority should be? E.g., how do I explain the information in the clearest possible way vs. how do I find a way to bring the story to life?
The message should always come first, and emphasis should always be placed on something that is surprising and additive to someone’s life. After that, you can entertain all you want. Execution and seriousness of intent can ultimately become something that is purely pleasurable through a really painstaking craft … when you find something that is elevated by design, by the time and thought someone put into all of it.
If you look at really beautiful old maps from 19th century, what’s amazing is how great they are, with a consistency that is astonishing. If you were designing something before the computer age, you had to do everything by hand. You had to spend so much time up front that the end point became so much better. After you thought about the story in-depth enough, you were able to start thinking about layout because you were intimately familiar with the information.
Do you believe that the value of editorial infographics will become diluted as the medium gains more popularity?
The form may go by the wayside, and the long comic book style may go away. But there is a demand for visual storytelling, and it’s not going anywhere. The value of it is not going anywhere. However, the bar will be raised, as there’s more of it.
Do you believe that what has recently become known as “the infographic industry” will change significantly in the near future? If so, how?
It’ll change in the same way that these things are funded changes. In a lot of cases these are currently being funded by scammers/spammers/people trying to improve Google rankings. If the money comes from different places, the content and reason why they exist will change. We are just on the cusp of all of this changing. In the future, you’ll see an increasing editorial infographic wave; there’s something coming. There’s going to be more attention paid and more money spent on making more chart-driven stories/pages.