For more explanation of this month’s theme, “millennials in thirty things,” check out this post.
Infographics offer two necessary conditions for a millennial to thrive in this world: knowing something quickly and looking nice. In short, they’re sexy and smart—and they’re everywhere.
Infographics visualize data in a rapidly digestible format, using an assortment of clean shapes in a palette of nice colors that allow the viewer to understand the information and marvel at how it looks. The proliferation of efficient systems of mass data transit (the Internet) and portable (even wearable!) devices with tremendous processing power have connected millennials to a network of rapid information transaction. For our minds to keep up with the data deluge, we require tools like the infographic, engineered to squeeze the gap between our complex environment and our curious yet limited cognition.
Such tools leave us feeling not only in control, but also, like the medium itself, smart because we can know so much and sexy because it just looks so darn cool. Perhaps, as a result, we too easily devote our trust to such tools. And we’ve also become impatient. We can no longer wait to hear, read, or even watch information. We must see information.
But what, really, lies behind what this tool is doing? Simply put, it’s a graphics whiz communicating information using pleasant and representative visuals. This process simplifies complicated ‘stuff’ into something a lot easier to understand.
This is not always a bad thing. For example, a couple of years ago, John Muyskens and John Kloosterman of put together an infographic for Chimes that breaks down a major source of Calvin’s financial debt. Representing inscrutable financial terms and dizzying numbers into visual elements enables viewers to understand an important issue that’s albeit too complex for people like me who baulk when we read the word “fiscal” near the top of an article. Infographics help us put our minds around complex knowledge.
However, though this cleary is not the case with Muyskens and Kloosterman’s work, simplification for the sake of proximity to and immediate control over information often comes with a cost. We can observe this in the broader trend of technological innovations. Many of our most cutting-edge personal technology promises users power over data—both in what we take in and what we generate. The same capacity that allows technology more data intake, however, forces us to apply greater economy on how we share data as interpretable information. Speed and efficiency necessitates quicker readability and sharability and thus a loss of some information. That’s the fundamental yet oft-ignored tradeoff behind any tool like the infographic. Visual communication inherently requires reduction and selectiveness. Infographics finesse data into simple shapes, complementary colors, and sleek fonts.
In such cases, the question must always be asked: to what extent? What exactly are we losing? Perhaps the latter is harder to answer because there’s just too much data out there. Then we at least ought to ask, how exactly did we get the data? This process of verification, which is laborious and, quite frankly, often over our heads, becomes a peripheral concern we rarely visit.
It’s important to improve our visual literacy, but I’d like to argue that it’s just as important—if not more—to increase our tools for evaluating how data is gathered, not just presented. This sure doesn’t sound sexy, but the folks at Harvard Business Review (HBR) don’t seem to think so. The periodical heralds Data Scientist as the “sexiest job in the twentieth century.” These data scientists aren’t the ones producing snappy infographics. They’re the ones in the trenches and frontlines of collecting and interpreting messy data. They’re the ones (hopefully) properly evaluating and analyzing data. And they’re sexy because they’re sorely needed in a world where data gathering and sharing is rapidly outpacing our understanding of data.
We, too, need new smarts about our data and how we share it, not only for the sake of better interactiveness with our environment than what a simplification tool like an infographic will tell us, but also to build our capacity to evaluate its claims. We must foster knowledge, as David Weinberger at HBR defines it, that “is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous.”
Let’s go for it: the new smart will always be sexy.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.