Visualizing Credibility:
Infographic Exploration
2011

Favorite Part: Breaking away from spreadsheets and two-by-two matrices to look at beautiful graphics and build something with my hands.

Hardest Part: Putting a hard stop on an open ended investigation so we could build an installation. I’ve learned how important it is to identify a goal before diving in.

Through a graduate seminar in Cornell’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, I explored the visual and contextual characteristics of credibility in infographics. My team evaluated a sample of BP Oil Spill infographics on subjective measures of credibility, like trustworthiness, propensity to be shared or referenced, and likelihood of preservation. We then ordered the infographics by common characteristics of Look, Time, and Voice within a 3D cube. By walking around the cube, viewers could identify patterns within the infographics and draw their own conclusions about the characteristics of credibility.

The Process

As the conversation surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill progressed from Learning to Understanding to Resolving to Reflecting, the “look” of credibility was consistently important in determining which infographics were shared and preserved, and by extension, which infographics were effective. First, we outlined criteria for judging credibility in the context of the oil spill. To do this, we identified patterns in the infographics that were curated in the months after the disaster. To further our understanding of infographics’ fit in the greater conversation about the oil spill, we created an event timeline behind our existing graphic collection. Finally, we sorted the sample infographics by voice, or the original source, grouping them all into news, science, infographic sites, or industry.

Several conclusions jumped out immediately, as we were completing the analysis. For example, many of the visual characteristics of credible graphics aligned with our preconceived framework for “newspaper” graphics. Clearly, when form varies so widely among infographics, existing credibility filters become increasingly important. After completing the timeline, the simplicity of all our selected infographics was immediately noticeable as well. Not even the most technical illustrations came close to the level of detail that was being reported in daily news articles. Additionally, the flow of infographics did not match the flow of developments during the first few months after the spill. Despite the form’s growing popularity, infographics, and their creators, did not chose to keep pace with daily (or even weekly) developments.

After completing our tests and reviewing the final product in 3D space, several more key points were developed:

  1. Effective infographics were particularly powerful for non-expert to non-expert communications. They showed abstract, big picture concepts excellently, but were overwhelming when too technical.
  2. Effective infographics do not age as quickly as news articles and other information sources do. We had no trouble understanding them as we found them, but re-reading the daily news updates was confusing. There was heavy use of difficult to remember technical language, references to specific people, and references to current events.
  3. Messages in effective infographics rarely conflict each other, where news reports change all the time. Possibly because each graphic takes time to make, creators have time to fix mistakes when updates come out the next day. Infographics focus more on observable, proveable facts, like where the oil is in the ocean. They are less concerned with exactly how many barrels are leaking per day and are designed for longevity with a focus on the big picture.

What it Means to Me

The greatest challenge in creating this installation was finding a concise way to present a wealth of data. After analyzing the infographics and outlining the points we wanted to emphasize, we found ourselves designing a 15 minute guided experience of our research. Knowing that our audience was likely to spend far less than 15 minutes on our work, we changed gears and tried to figure out the most compelling way to present the data. The end result, a series of monolithic panels leading to a large 3D cube, was immediately engaging and curiosity provoking. Though we risked individual viewers leaving without realizing every insight we had uncovered, we brought far more people through the door and into the exhibit than we might have with a more didactic approach. Through this project, I realized the power of leveraging naturally engaging forms to deliver a complex message. I have used this experience to improve the quality of my presentations to clients and professors by simplifying complex ideas into engaging graphics.

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