FEATURE1 March 2011

Picture perfect

Robert Bain takes a look at information design in research.

A billion dollars. Sixty billion dollars. Twelve trillion dollars. What do those words mean? Even if we can write them out in figures, who among us actually knows what ‘sixty billion dollars’ means, in the same way that they know what ‘bicycle’ or ‘killer whale’ means?

When we express numbers in visual form, though, it’s a different story. A one-minute video called Debtris, in which blocks of different sizes representing different sums of money fall down the screen Tetris-style, has racked up more than 140,000 views on YouTube. It looks at things like the estimated cost of the Iraq war versus the real cost, and the total sum of Wall Street bonuses versus what it would cost to save the Amazon rainforest.

Debtris is based on information that anyone can look up for themselves on the internet, but it seems doubtful that any of its sources have had as many hits as the video. This is the power of good information design. Infographics and data visualisations of all kinds have become hot in media and business, and are catching on in the research world too.

Presenting data visually is, of course, nothing new. But the accessibility of design and data-crunching software, combined with the plethora of data available on the web, have, in the hands of a visually literate generation, contributed to the rise of infographics. For journalists and data geeks it’s a way to make facts appealing and accessible, while for designers it’s a chance to apply visual skill to something with real substance.

Information design has grown alongside the related field of data journalism, with the New York Times setting up a data visualisation lab, and The Guardian regularly splashing lavish infographics across whole pages.

Where design meets research
Max Gadney is one man who has carved out a career in the space where design meets market research. As well as producing illustrations for publications including World War II magazine, Gadney worked for several years on the BBC News website, where he became head of design and audience insight. He explains that to design a news site “you need to understand the behaviour of the user and the context” – something that is achieved largely through usability and product design research techniques. From insight-fuelled design, Gadney has now moved into design-fuelled insight in his new job as chief creative officer at Hall & Partners.

He describes his job as “to make market research understandable to our clients”, and information design is just one of the ways he intends to do this. Like the world of media, market research needs to embrace multiplatform publishing, he says. “We won’t be the only company doing this. Many of our rivals are also coming up with different manifestations of data that they create. I hope I can bring an edge where it’s going to be more understandable, useful, desirable.”

Generally speaking, though, market research doesn’t have a stellar reputation for its ability to present data visually (or, for that matter, verbally). Andrew Doyle, chairman of design agency Holmes & Marchant, has a clear verdict on researchers’ skills in this area: “They’re absolutely bloody hopeless.” Doyle says the industry just doesn’t recruit, train or encourage its people to have a strong aesthetic sense. “Have you ever seen a well-dressed market researcher?” he asks – and he’s only half joking.

Over the years Doyle has done plenty of design work on research findings, but when I ask which agencies he’s worked with he says: “None. I’ve tried, but it’s always the clients who come to us. I think they give up on the agencies. Just think of the lost revenue as a result of that.”

Simon Dunn also provides design services for research, having left Research International a couple of years ago and set up on his own. He seems to have more empathy with agencyside researchers than Doyle, but he still sees problems.

“When I joined the market research industry more than 10 years ago, people were trying to push researchers away from presenting all the findings in 150 slides and towards putting just the information you need upfront,” says Dunn. “And I’m not entirely convinced that that’s even caught on yet. It’s a confidence issue – if someone has paid a lot of money for research, you want to prove there’s a lot of work behind it. I think researchers do still struggle with that.”

For Dunn, good information design doesn’t have to mean ditching any of the old research communication tools – a lot of the work he does is on PowerPoint presentations, and while clients like to talk about exciting ways of delivering research findings, when it comes to the crunch he finds they tend to be pretty conservative.

Infographics, he says, are another way to “get the message across in an interesting manner that will embed in the audience’s mind” but also a way to “appear more creative and more advanced than the competition”.

Leaping on the bandwagon
Dunn’s former RI colleague Tom Ewing, who is now at Kantar Operations, has distinctly mixed feelings about the fashion for infographics. Many of them, he says, are “astonishingly gorgeous compared to your average PowerPoint presentation”, but as research agencies hop on the bandwagon, he fears we will see some very bad information design alongside the good stuff.

Certainly infographics are becoming a bit of a fad, and some of them are a triumph of style over substance. Digital marketing blogger Noah Brier recently lost his patience with them. More often than not, Brier writes, infographics are “disposable pieces of content created to impress the viewer into a sort of submissive state where they pass judgement purely on an aesthetic level”.

The viral power of infographics shows that people certainly do find them impressive. But Ewing (who serves as Kantar’s resident social media boffin) says that, in his experience, infographics which purport to convey useful information are often distributed “by people who already knew it and already knew what they think about it, sending it to other people who already know it and already know what they think about it”. Through attractive design, infographics can have an appearance of saying something worthwhile when in fact their message goes no deeper than: ‘poor people have less money than rich people’ or ‘more column inches are written about Jordan than Stephen Hawking’. Even when they do contain useful information, they rarely get into the ‘why’, says Ewing.

With visual literacy in research improving, Ewing sees potential for researchers to apply their analytical skills to making infographics more “truthful and useful”. On the other hand he fears that those in the industry who lack the necessary skills might end up “creating particularly shoddy and banal infographics – or using them as an excuse not to do the back-end analytical work”.

There’s no lack of inspiration out there for researchers to draw on. One of the best purveyors of visualisations is Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, whose animations of health stats in comparison with GDP have garnered worldwide attention. David McCandless, the man responsible for Debtris, deals with some equally serious material in his work (and since this piece was written he’s been taken on as a consultant by WPP’s research group Kantar), but he’s not above producing visualisations purely for fun. As well as causes of death and carbon emissions, he has addressed such topics as time travel plots in film, and dance music genres.

The shareability of infographics, and their ability to make a point, are both things that research can learn from. Some of the best ones are highly subjective, even polemical. In Tom Ewing’s view the key question to ask is: “What proportion of the unconverted are you preaching to?”

Style versus substance?
As the head of research at marketing agency Brass, Anna Cliffe has access to more design and comms resources than the average agencyside researcher. She believes the industry has much to learn about information design, which so far has developed mostly in fields outside market research.

“Researchers are not visual experts, but there’s no harm in bringing that into the industry,” she says. “The challenge is, clients don’t want to pay for it. At the moment it tends to be the same person who does the research who charts the information. So it relies on research investing in the area and thinking it’s important.”

Cliffe, who is organising an infographics showcase for this month’s Research 2011 conference (which can now be seen online here), is optimistic about the potential to “elevate the outputs” of research and attract higher-level attention in client organisations. She recognises the risk of style eclipsing substance, but still thinks it’s worth moving in that direction. “At the moment we’ve got substance but no style,” she says. “What’s wrong with some style?”