January 15, 2017 Mario Gatara

A Story from the Assembly Line: The Deceptive Nature of Infographics

Every journey begins with a single step. I don’t know about you, but in my case, that first step is always preceded by the heavy anxiety triggered by the assignment details that pour in, loaded with terminology all too difficult to pronounce and ideas almost impossible to fathom, seasoned with plenty of rather strange abbreviations. However, that’s only if you’re lucky. Otherwise, there’s usually a working paper hidden there, laden with heavy statistics and Greek symbols lurking in tables and blocks of text obviously written to perplex ordinary readers. For a moment, contemplating that working paper feels like a liberal arts student doing an interview with a Goldman Sachs vice-president, unable to grasp the hazy contours of the utterly unknown.

Typically, these accompanying instructions are overloaded with details that will drastically reduce your already miniscule attention span and are usually garnished with vague requests wrapped around a seemingly simple goal: to deliver a glossy product that even an absolute beginner can easily comprehend. Take it from me: if you, for some strange reason, have ever wanted to increase the level of cortisol in your body, this is exactly the way to do it. Yep, I’m talking about the process of creating infographics on an assembly line, a process, mired with confusing input, that entails large amounts of delicate carving, using a comprehensive set of mental tools that include writing skills, resourcefulness and imagination.

A puzzle of many pieces

Sometimes, the infographics task is deceptively simple. Take, for example, an attempt to sum up the entire history and development of the hard disk drive industry Western Digital – HDD Industry At a Glance – it quickly becomes a strange case of the “familiarity breeds contempt” concept. This is because, as you know, the hard disk has been a critical component of IT ecosystems for decades, and if you use a computer, you can probably picture the spinning platter with its needle that makes the read/write process possible, moving masses of data in a blink of an eye. However, what do you really know about the industry that churns out hundreds of millions of disks every year? Can you imagine the sheer size of it? Are you familiar with the important concepts driving it and how it all began in the first place? To describe an ostensibly familiar topic in a nutshell is one thing, but to write a good story about it is quite another. When you take on such an assignment, you realize the hard truth – no, it’s not going to be an easy feat, after all.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the implacable laws of physics doing their job at that very moment, transforming energy from one form to another, converting the anxiety into (much more valuable!) hard work. A puzzle of many pieces slowly emerges with every new discovery. The first objective is to relentlessly track the details – to delve into the unknown and start connecting the dots, ignoring the all too familiar tale of Sisyphus. This is a tedious yet rewarding task that consists mainly of reviewing a vast quantity of material and double-checking facts while persistently searching for crucial info. Hours, then days, pass by, but there’s no way to avoid the demands of a tight deadline. From time to time, closing the lid of the notebook seems like a valid alternative, encouraging the procrastination route. However, the most effective antidote is to enthusiastically immerse oneself in this mysterious new world.

Dissecting the facts

By dissecting the facts and drawing the broad outline of the subject, you construct a time line, cluttered with important data, which becomes a cornerstone of your story. At first, it will be too large, and in order to streamline it, you need to reverse course. This requires some serious distilling of the data until a concise and coherent story emerges. For this story to make perfect sense, a persuasive narrative, which can be coupled with visual cues that unleash the power of human learning patterns, is needed. Infographics can be a deceptive tool: it looks simple and straightforward, but don’t let simplicity fool you: crafting a sound and engaging story is really an art – it is based on vast experience in the field with a diversity of customers.

Bringing the data into a more familiar perspective

By now, of course, you’ve become a self-proclaimed expert on this subject, and you’re ready for the final phase of the project, confidently combining and refining the puzzle pieces shaped by the process of data familiarization. You’re already able to recite a complete list of milestones and investment and consumption figures, making way for a nuanced presentation, rich with appealing analogies, comparisons and adjustments.

Building upon the existing smooth narrative can capture bits of information that illustrate the facts in a more familiar way. Presenting price trends in a slightly unusual manner is a perfect example: describing a price/quantity correlation between storage space and a Big Mac unmistakably depicts the benefits of decades of industrial innovation. Comparing basic human needs like food and shelter to the confines of the virtual world brings data into a commonly shared dimension, making it more appealing and memorable. Often, the very process of translating technical information into more day-to-day language, comprehensible to the wider public, is the key ingredient of an engaging storyline and a vital requirement for raising awareness of a subject. Now, I know a catchy, fun story that “only” needs an inspired designer to secure a client’s admiration. But that’s another story…

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