While infographics in and of themselves aren’t new, a recent article in Fast Company by John Palvus calls attention to an interesting research paper exploring their persuasive power. For those of you unfamiliar with infographics, also known as information graphics, a basic definition is that they are visual representations of information. Specifically from a design standpoint infographics are intended to convey complex or large amounts of data in an accessible, succinct, easy-to-read and high-impact manner. (In)Famous examples you may recognize include Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph from Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and Sara Palin’s “target” map. A more innocuous example might be a map of the New York City Subway.
The paper entitled “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions” published by Brendan Nyhan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, tests infographics as one means of countering preexisting beliefs, especially those based on political misperceptions or misinformation as related to the psychological phenomenon of disconfirmation bias. A particularly timely topic given the present presidential debate season.
Contrary to Palvus’ comment regarding it’s legitimacy, political science does indeed qualify as a science and Nyhan and Reifler do apply a scientific methodology for testing their hypothesis. Their findings were that graphical corrections were more effective in “…reducing incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction.” As graphic designers, we can probably all agree on the persuasive power of ‘graphical information’ but for me the more compelling aspect of their finding relates to the power of said ‘graphical information’ to overcome ingrained biases.
Of course, as Palvus points out in his article this ‘persuasive power’ (much like the force) can be equally used for ‘evil’ such as further disseminating misinformation or propping up existing biases. Similarly, in a recent conversation with a client of mine I was discussing the fine lines of difference between advertising and propaganda. For me, the key take-aways of the paper and Palvus’ commentary are two fold: 1.) successful design in the form of infographics for good or ill is powerfully persuasive and 2.) the visual nature of infographics should require that they be equally if not more vigorously subjected to critical thought and analysis than their plain text counterparts—not less.
If you’re interested in more examples of infographics check out the good.com infographics page. Onextrapixel.com has a well-rounded article on successfully designing infographics and if you still haven’t had your fill check out dailyinfographic.com.