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Info Graphics Graphically Defined

By: Steven Heller | March 11, 2010

he Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics

Dona Wong is an expert in conceptualizing and producing information graphics that are easily understood by millions of demanding readers on a daily basis. Drawing on her years of experience as a visual journalist for both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, she offers her insights on how to communicate with clear, concise, and intelligent graphics in her new book, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics, a critical area of visual communications that impacts everyone. Here she answers a few questions on the role of info graphics:

What is the most important element of an information graphic?

The critical issue is the balance of visual impact and data richness. A highly designed graphic with insubstantial content will capture your attention, but end up as eye candy and leave readers disappointed. A complex graphic chock-full of data, unedited and not filtered, will be overwhelming and will fail to communicate the intended message. Simply organizing and filtering the data merely produces a table. But marrying that with the appropriate visual expression will bring out the message in the most eloquent and efficient way.

How is there a universal information language?

“Universal” implies there is a standard so everyone uses the same convention. My issue is no one has yet defined the basic grammar of information graphics. We learn how to write starting from ABC and form words before we write an editorial. With graphics, people install their software and start making graphics with zero training. A pie chart with 15 slices or a bar chart without a zero baseline is like a misspelled word in the headline. And yet people accept that kind of mediocrity in their graphics presentations. My goal is to raise everyone’s awareness and sensitize them to the best charting practices.

Can all information be communicated visually?

Yes, all information can be communicated visually, but not all words or data should be replaced by visuals. A successful communicator uses the right combination of graphics, photos, words, gestures, voice—you name it. All information graphics have one common goal—to communicate the intended message. The challenge is how to turn a massive amount of information into a compelling story. No program can replace the human touch in this process.