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Information visualization is a growing niche in the fields of journalism, business and science. The ability to present a variety of information visually engages an audience, conveys complex ideas in a more understandable and memorable way and can be much more effective than text alone.

Infographics are effective because the human brain is hardwired to understand and remember certain visual cues. Simply reading about something is far less effective than being shown a visual representation of that thing.

There has been an explosion in the past five years of the use of infographics to convey information. Political communications strategists have embraced infographics as a new form of informing voters. Below, I explore the ways infographics were used in the 2012 election, the power of infographics in policymaking and the implications for the field of information design.

A case study: the 2012 election

The growing space that the Internet consumes in the lives of Americans has encouraged the exploration of online campaign strategies. More so than ever before, 2012 was an election that centered on online strategy.

Campaigns have found new ways to microtarget audiences and convince them of their positions. One article states that even in the early 21st century, “they have evolved from mere “brochure-ware” to more engaging and interactive tools to inform and mobilize prospective voters and the media.

This evolution presents an important shift in campaign strategy. The Obama campaign harnessed the use of interactive tools and social media to reach, and more importantly, mobilize, an extended audience in 2012. An important way they did this was through creating infographics that could easily be posted on the web, consumed, and spread by viewers to reach a wider audience.

The Obama ‘Truth Team’ had an arm specifically dedicated to infographics creation.

Source: Obama for America Truth Team

The power of the infographic in this case was to attract attention and convince Internet audiences that data showed Obama was doing well as president. People trust infographics because they believe graphs are based in solid data. When a viewer sees a graph that shows a clear benefit for one candidate over another, it is a very visual and easily understandable argument for that candidate. See below for more on the power of the infographic to persuade.

Infographics and governing

The power of the infographic is not limited to the campaign trail. In matters of policymaking and governance, infographics can be a powerful tool for turning public opinion.

Take, for instance, this Republican-produced chart on the Democratic health care plan.  While it may not be pleasing the eye, the design of this graphic, I argue, is an effective political tool. Several parts of the graphic stand out to me for the political messages they send:

  • The overall structure of the graphic. The complex network of lines and shapes, coupled with a lack of hierarchy, makes this thing difficult to look at or comprehend easily. Some might say that makes for a bad infographic, but I think it’s an effective way for Republicans to convince viewers that the Democratic health plan is too complex.
  • The color choices in the graphic show no set color scheme. This adds to the chaos and complexity that Republicans would like the viewer to fear.
  • Font choices show no sign of consistency or order, adding further to the clutter.
  • Elements like iconography and different line weights have much more variation than is necessary.
  • To top it all off, the headline calls this an “Organizational Chart,” clearly trying to evoke a response from the viewer that this is anything but organized.

The design of this graphic is effective in my opinion because it continues the Republican narrative of the complexities of the Democratic health plan, not only through written word, but also through design.

The power to deceive

The internet and social media have made the spread of infographics – and information in general – much easier, as viewers who identify with the message of the graphic have the ability to share it with others.

This dissemination of information is key to political campaigns getting their message out there. This environment also affects how the designer creates the graphic, as the more sensational and eye-catching it is, the more likely it will get attention paid to it.

This push for sensationalism can sometimes lead campaign messages far into the realm of the ridiculous.

With the seemingly great power infographics have to influence voters comes the ability of political actors to misrepresent data for their own gain. Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign ad relating to Obama’s record on China.

I wrote about this topic in a blog for another class here.

Overall, infographics are powerful tools for campaigns to spread their messages, but viewers should be wary of misrepresentation of numbers in those graphics. The internet makes the infographic boom a very real tool in a campaign and I expect more experimentation in the future, both in presidential campaigns and policy battles.

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