Feb 272013
 

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says,
“What is this, some kind of joke?”

No matter how you reacted to that, it’s a lot like how I react to infographics.

Most of them are more about the graphic than the info, I think. In fact, I’d been planning to write a post contrasting infographics with job aids, because I think many people confuse the former with the latter.

Instead, thanks to Mark Oehlert, I came across Desmond Wong’s post, Infographics to Teach You How to Create Infographics. Wong talks about them as a marketing tool, then goes into the details of constructing them using PointPoint, and of harnessing layout and graphics to achieve your goal.

What’s that got to do with those folks walking into a bar?

Infographics are like jokes.
(This is a different statement from “infographics are a joke.”)

Infographics are situational.

People enjoy jokes, but enjoyment (usually) hinges on context. What’s funny at work isn’t always what’s funny at the game; what sparks conversation at the coffee shop can put off someone reading online.

If you’re uninterested in the context, reading an infographic can sometimes like work–the kind of work you’re glad you don’t have to do.

If the graphic elements are well-done, though–when they engage us, the way a good joke-teller does–we’ll at least take time to find out what happens next. We might not stay long, but we didn’t pass by

Infographics rely on patterns.

I haven’t read enough Jung to be sure, but I’d bet he thought about “walking into a bar” as one of his archetypes. It’s really the framework for a pattern: “I’m going to arrange some ideas here and play with them.”

Not every pattern shows up in every good joke, any more than the same cards show up in a good poker hand. Like music, though, jokes and infographics are subject to their version of Duke Ellington’s test: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

X-walks-into-a-bar is a stage for a virtual performance. For infographics, that stage is set, as Wong points out, with strong visual elements: blocks of color, distinctive shapes, headlines, callouts, hand- (or cherry-) picked data.

Even the overall shape is a pattern. While I’ve seen exceptions like Randall Munroe’s graphics on money and radiation, most infographics embrace a long-but-not-wide format. My hunch is they’re following the online convention: people scroll down, but not sideways.

Infographics are an invitation. 

People tell jokes for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t tell them to themselves. Telling is only the start of the process. A joke is an invitation to share.

Maybe you’re sharing silliness or mockery. Maybe you’re sharing stereotypes to ridicule them–or to signal that you’re on the same side. Two-way sharing can be a kind of camaraderie: “Okay, how many accordionists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

Through wordplay and juxtaposition, jokes invite you to take up a different viewpoint. The unexpectedly funny jokes engage us with their contrast and make us feel good because we got them.

A good infographic invites you to look at its content in new ways. Whether polemical or political or even poetic, the infographic is saying, “Did you ever think…?” 

I do have some misgivings. Some people seem to think that any collection of text, shapes, and colors doing time together is an infographic. I suspect they’re the same sort of people who think “outtake” is a synonym for “hilariously funny.”

Still, if somebody wants to follow Desmond Wong’s tutorials and come up with his own infographic, I think that’s great. He’s got some design fundamentals and a set of templates as a fast start. The real learning begins where the infographic leaves off.

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