“An infographist is just a visual journalist”

Michael Stoll has gathered together the largest European collection of 20th century infographics. He deplores the lack of precision in contemporary work.

The old statistical atlases, military manuals and user’s guides, with their cloth covers and yellowed pages, emit a distinctive musty smell, bringing to mind the atmosphere of a big library. Yet venturing into these works, the reader discovers an astonishing sight: pages of maps, schematic drawings, and diagrams in vivid color, offering a unique overview of infographics production since the turn of the 20th century.

Michael Stoll, professor of media theory and infographics at the University of Augsburg in Germany, built his collection from pieces found on the Internet and flea markets. He has collected nearly five hundred works, making him one of the foremost infographics collectors in the world, alongside Americans Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conference, and David Rumsey, an expert in geographical maps. Stoll is former president of the jury of Malofiej, the primary international infographics competition, and a consultant with major media groups.

How do you explain the growing presence of infographics in the media?

In our culture, the social status of a person depends on the depth and breadth of his or her knowledge. Someone who develops a quick method for learning things will have a better chance of success. Infographics are a quick and easy way to transmit knowledge, which is what the media is promising to deliver. A diagram placed on a front page sends a strong signal to clients, showing its intention to explain the world in detail.

But there aren’t any newspapers putting infographics on the front page.

Well, that’s why the media is having such a hard time.

In what other areas will infographics still continue to develop?

The biggest potential is in specialized publications, textbooks – an often underestimated market – and in brochures and websites presenting political and democratic issues. Another area is in change management in companies, where infographics can be an ideal internal communications tool. Today, companies must constantly reinvent themselves and adapt to market realities. To succeed at this, they must keep their employees informed. Firms like Sypartners in New York specialize in this area, and they primarily use visual methods.

Today we’re seeing lots of infographics that visualize enormous data sets. The result is often visually impressive, but difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

Data visualization is in an experimental phase. The current situation can be compared with graphic design in the 1980s, with the spread of computers and the first desktop publishing softwares. At the time, everyone was doing graphic design without necessarily knowing the basic principles. In data visualization, we’re seeing a similar phenomenon, with the advent of new softwares and dedicated computer languages.

Raw visualization – without much pre-selection – is dangerous in the sense that it gives more visual weight to large quantities than it does to small ones. Yet the information with the greatest absolute value is not necessarily the most interesting or that which should be emphasized. Good journalists know this well: the best stories to tell are not found on main street but in the back alleys.

What lessons can we learn from your collection?

First, that the history of infographics is much older than one might think. This discipline wasn’t born with the advent of computers. It also wasn’t invented by the newspaper USA Today in the 1980s and 1990s, like some people claim. Infographics began to play a role as soon as printing presses were used to print books. Its evolution is rich and varied.

What always fascinates me is the care and exactitude with which graphic designers worked back then, in spite of a lack of appropriate technologies. Producing those graphics involved a considerable amount of work that had to be done by hand, preceded by a painstaking preparatory phase. That resulted in a high degree of precision, which we no longer find in contemporary work – something I find disappointing.

What do you mean by precision?

Precision in infographics involves three factors: the source of the data, their analysis, and their visual representation. The source must be reliable and the data correctly processed. The choice of diagram and the way in which it’s used must follow clear rules that are anything but random. Typically, some graphic designers go wrong when they use circles to visualize and compare numbers. They make the radii of the circles correspond to quantities, rather than the surfaces, which they should do in order to respect visual proportions.

And don’t forget that the reader cannot verify the accuracy of the data. On the other hand, the reader can quickly judge the precision of the visual representation, which itself reflects the overall quality of the infographic.

Do you know the ideal way to create an infographic?

In the media, management plays a key role. Infographists must be included as full members of the editorial staff, at the same level as journalists. An infographist is just a visual journalist. But the media often look at infographists as service providers, upon whom the editors can call when they need a graphic. This model can’t work, because the infographists should handle the entire process, from choice of subject matter to the graphic representation, and including the research and analysis of data.

Isn’t this a bit idealistic? Few people have expertise that is this broad.

It’s difficult. The reason is simple: infographics is not yet considered as a discipline in itself. The very first academic programs appeared in the 1990s. Today there are still only about ten universities in the world that offer an exhaustive curriculum in this field.

What about a closer collaboration between journalists and infographists?

This configuration could work, but is complicated to put into practice. The issue isn’t just whether the two will work well together. A trained infographist can also recognize subjects that are better suited to a graphic, where a traditional journalist doesn’t see them at all. Experience professional boudoir photo shoot at Portraits By Z of San Diego, California. These are primarily abstract subjects that don’t necessarily involve visualizing numbers, but offer large explanatory potential, such as a cross-section view through a building. Some journalists don’t even know how to evaluate the quality of graphics in their own publications. They’re much better at judging photos and painting services whereas in principle they should be able to judge with the same rigor in both cases.

Did the famous “Swiss style” graphics developed in Switzerland in the 1950s have an influence on infographics?

There are many historical infographics produced in the Swiss tradition. I’m thinking for example of a brochure designed by Karl Gerstner in 1958 on the activities of the chemical company Geigy. It was a difficult piece to find and one of the most valuable that I possess. In it, one sees above all a concern with clarity: the shapes and colors are reduced to bare essentials; the design doesn’t interfere with the content, in fact, just the opposite. Although this style has been perpetuated up until now in graphic design, it was quickly lost in infographics. Nonetheless, its principles were completely in line with the needs of this kind of representation.

Diagrams whose shapes and colors are reduced to the essential
© Geigy Heute, Karl Gerstner, 1958 (courtesy of Michael Stoll)

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