When Infographics Go Bad (And 5 Things Designers Should Do About It)

When Infographics Go Bad

Early last year, a few folks at IANtB decided to run an experiment: could they get an infographic with a significant error to go viral?

When Jamie posted the infographic on Facebook, the very first comment was someone who noticed the discrepancy. I was in meetings all day but Jamie called me 6 times trying to catch me — she was surprised and pleased that her readers are discerning. I think you all renewed Jamie’s faith in the general public today.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. The inaccurate infographic has actually been shared 68 times. Which means, it is incredibly easy for even blatantly inaccurate information to go viral.

While I'm always one for experimenting, the only surprising thing is that it wasn't shared more. Inaccurate and misleading infographics have been a blight on social media for years now. Sometimes it's just poor information design, in which the window dressing inadvertently misleads the viewer. But there's also a structural reason for the prevalence of sloppy work in the infographic world. Megan McArdle at The Atlantic, after dissecting several of the most-inaccurate infographics, rightly assigns most of the blame to SEO-hungry commercial linking sites:

  1. They are made by random sites without particularly obvious connection to the subject matter. Why is Creditloan.com making an infographic about the hourly workweek?
  2. Those sites, when examined, either have virtually no content at all, or are for things like debt consolidation--industries with low reputation where brand recognition, if it exists at all, is probably mostly negative.
  3. The sources for the data, if they are provided at all, tend to be in very small type at the bottom of the graphic, and instead of easy-to-type names of reports, they provide hard-to-type URLs which basically defeat all but the most determined checkers.
  4. The infographics tend to suggest that SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS HAPPENING IN THE US RIGHT NOW!!! the better to trigger your panic button and get you to spread the bad news BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!

Yup. For every website I help manage I've received at least a dozen email requests (always super enthusiastic and complimentary) saying that they love our site and want to share this informative infographic with your audience, if we'd so mind linking back to them? Here's a sampling of the emails I've received over a several month period (with each "person" replying back after a week or so to provide a "friendly reminder" that I hadn't gotten back to them).

Infographic Scam Bonnie Moore

Infographic Scam Faye Walker

Infographic Scam Katherine Rose

Infographic Scam Ashleigh Bell

There's a reason all these emails look so similar. Getting backlinks through infographics is the hot new thing in SEO, and lots of people are pushing it (for example). And it's obvious that in most of these cases the inaccuracies are not due to malice (with some exceptions), but just lazy Googling. NYU librarian Jennifer Vinopal wrote of a particularly egregious infographic that used a student-written University of Calgary wiki page for the source of a data point.

So what are we to do?

McArdle suggests user diligence: "Remember: only you can prevent viral media from spreading." We certainly owe it to ourselves and each other to critically look at data presented before hitting Share or Retweet.

But that's not enough: I'd like to suggest designer diligence as well. If you're like me, and think that designers should have more agency than that of a glorified Photoshop robot, then we've got to step it up. If we pick a garish color palette or use a font size so small nobody can read it, that's rightfully on us. But what if the graphics we design involve outdated, inaccurate, or intentionally "cooked" numbers? That should be, at least partially, on us too.

Of course there are limits to designer's due diligence. Doing layout for a 200-page book shouldn't require a designer to fact-check every claim and corroborate every citation: that's the job of an editor. But in the case of infographics, there's no good reason to not double-check what you're posting, or at least do some basic research on the topic (which you should be doing in order to competently design the graphic in the first place, right?).

The prominence of design bidding cattle calls like 99designs aren't helping things either. They're pushing the field away from genuine designer investment in the product. Many designers like to refer to themselves as "hired guns," conjuring romantic visions of vigilante justice in the Old West, but lest we forget: "hired guns" are mercenaries who kill people simply for money, without asking any uncomfortable questions of their clients. Is that really the ethic we as design professionals should be adopting?

So I call on designers to do the following four things:

  1. Stop designing SEO infographics. Just stop. From the listings I've seen, they're not paying you enough anyway. Take a pass on "bestinsurancequotes.biz wants a great ObamaCare infographic!" and design something a smidge more worthwhile.
  2. Fact check the numbers, even if they're not yours. Especially if they're not yours. Take a half hour and get to know the data. Are the numbers discredited? Outdated? Are there competing numbers that paint an entirely different story? Are there additional numbers that your client is intentionally omitting? If you don't think you can dedicate the time to figure that out given their budget, either eat the billable hours or pass on the gig.
  3. Pick visualizations that fit the data. The word "info" comes before "graphic," and for good reason. Should this data be presented as a pie chart, which is notoriously ill-suited for comparing small differences? A line graph, which can misleadingly suggest smooth transitions between data points? One of those fancypants radar charts, which take users forever to figure out? Make sure neither you nor your client uses visuals to exaggerate small differences or minimize large ones.
  4. Make the numbers fact-checkable by others. Your sources shouldn't be an undifferentiated list at the bottom of the graphic (some designers don't even deign to put them on separate lines, resulting in a garish undecipherable block), they should be proper footnotes that link the datapoint and its exact source (not just the source site's homepage). Ideally, you should insist that your client put each source as a clickable link on their infographic's landing page or blogpost, and provide a link to that page in the graphic. Take up a few hundred more pixels and do the job right.
  5. Hold yourself and fellow designers acountable. Many of the worst-offending infographic designs aren't actually credited (I wonder why), but when we do see a name or firm attached to them, we shouldn't be afraid to call them out on it. It may seem like an insignificant gesture, especially once the infographic is out in the wild and being shared by the masses, but pressure will hopefully make designers take a bit more care in the future. We have to make sure that fidelity to facts is at the center of infographic design process, not an afterthought, and changing that norm starts with each of us.