This is a guest post from Ben Harrow, Digital Editor at 72Point and at News by Design, a news site built around infographics - a platform that shows off infographics that tell a newsworthy story in a structured and visually dynamic way.

The term ‘infographic boom’ really grates.

As the product and its presence both continually improve, data visualisation is definitely riding a wave – and I guess that means it’s surfing its way into the mainstream media.

With the likes of The Guardian still setting the bar when it comes to quantity and quality, others news orgs like The Press Association are increasingly getting on board; delivering to the rest of the mainstream UK press and ensuring that the tabloids begin to take note.

Even PRs are seeing greater success with agency produced graphics, hoovering up name-checks and giving the business of infographics a wider appeal.

But how are they being received? Is data visualisation, in all its forms, being implemented more regularly just because it’s the next new thing? And will there be a place, long term, for graphics and visualisations in the mainstream press, both on and offline, or will the quality collapse and the interest dwindle?

Discussing data – the four kinds of ‘infographic’

I’m not even going to go into the definition of ‘infographic’ – to me, it’s a single piece of data visualisation. An information graphic. An informative graphic. The meaning has changed and will continue to change, as all meanings do.

I will however, break them down into categories because, for me, they all fall into pretty different camps:

  • The Beautiful - we’re talking Pitch Interactive’s Drone Strikes and visualising population with NPR – often large, complex sets of data visualised in unique, intuitive and often visually staggering or stunning ways.
  • The Brilliantthis is the upper echelon of what is, essentially, standard procedure – we’re talking about well researched, data-driven, reactive and consistently high quality graphics, growing out of the newsrooms of The GuardianThe Washington Post and The Economist (although they have the tendency to rely on basic graphs).
  • The Basic - there’s nothing wrong with basic – we’re talking about typically vertical infographics on pop culture, issues in the news or survey-based statistics, the best of which find their way into the national newspapers online (occasionally in print) and across sector-specific news websites. Well-referenced research and clean, clear design, often created by an agency or a freelance/in-house designer.
  • The Brave - now, there IS something wrong with this. We’re talking poorly designed, poorly referenced (or not referenced at all) or no original research. Often been done a million times before with marginally different ideas or design. The bane of my life on News by Design, and the graphic equivalent of press release spam. Basically ‘The Basic’, but done all kinds of wrong.

Now, the vast majority will fit into the middle two categories – most of ‘The Brave’ won’t go viral or even see the light of day, and ‘The Beautiful’ are few and far between and, oddly, don’t pick up major coverage (because they are often impossible to embed or are a story in themselves, not needing coverage on another platform).

So if we’re talking mainstream media, you don’t really get to see the very best and the very worst.

The UK papers, and a dash across the pond

The Guardian obviously have a monopoly, of sorts, on ‘The Brilliant’ in the UK – when you think about data and data vis, you go straight to the Datablog (but The Economist are consistent, and another good example).

This means that the vast majority of ‘Brilliant’ infographics or data visualisations are only ever produced in-house, whether by their own designers or as part of a wider project attached to the organisation – and they are only ever distributed via one platform. There’s no PR or social media effort, so to speak, simply self publication.

This means that, unlike the standard infographic, which intends to ‘live’ for a long time and remain as viral as possible for as long as possible, they have a shelf life. Which is a curious thing.

As a result, and as is the nature of the type of publication, the ‘Brilliant’ are reactive to the news agenda, feature high quality research and data journalism and are much more suited to print, where they are beginning to appear more and more often (most interestingly as a regular feature in The Metro).

It’s basically journalism vs. public relations all over again.

(When it comes to the US they are, on the whole, kicking the UK when it comes to consistently producing quality graphics – across the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, they have more people consistently covering important issues visually – plus, The Guardian have around a third of their readers are in the US, and the Economist is partly US too – selfish, is what that is).

Marketing, PA, PR and social media shenanigans

So marketers saw the potential of these infographics to go viral. We all know the story. Content marketing, blahblahblah.

The better of ‘The Basics’ are attached to good brands and good PR companies, who now have the potential to achieve huge coverage on some of the most popular news websites in the world – and it does make sense to try and take advantage.

Mashable is a brilliant example of an early (and continuous) adopter – develop a good news angle, a strong topline and a decent quality infographic and you’re golden. Even we’ve done it, as part of the day job. And it’s genuine, good quality coverage.

Even the controversial titan that is the Mail Online is beginning to get on board – they’ll employ infographics to explain difficult topics, as the backbone of a PR story and, occasionally, as a story in themselves.

And the Press Association are making the process more mainstream, regularly sending out graphics as a picture desk would send out photos – as a resource for journalists to enhance and enlighten stories.

The quality and interest vary, but it’s an enticing prospect and something which could further wedge the door open, so to speak, to allow room for infographics to become to norm in the mainstream press.

It’s definitely a nice change from the self-producing market leaders (Guardian, Economist) having the monopoly on beautiful, visual things – but only if we’re heading in the right direction.

The Problems

For me, there are two reasons why infographics in the mainstream media are becoming pollutants – because of either the clients, or the quality.

For example, take, ironically, ‘The State of Infographics’ infographic that went viral as anything earlier this year – really good looking piece and some really good data.

But look at the ‘client’ – I refuse to hyperlink, but take a look. Take an actual look. I dare you.

Brands, doing infographics based subject matter relevant to their public perception, are my favourite. They show understanding, wit and intelligence, and the willingness to do something new.

But when it’s marketing spam, for a website that’s useful to no-one with content that has no relevance to your brand?

That’s when you’re polluting the pool.

The same goes with poor quality infographics – if you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t spend >£100, or use a company you don’t know, and just do it for the sake of doing it believing that if it’s an infographic, it’ll go viral.

It won’t.

Don’t use research you’ve seen on a different infographic (or no research at all, or unreferenced research), repeating the process just because you’ll catch some marketing value by proxy (Gangnam Style. Ooofffftt).

You won’t.

I can understand that not everyone can afford an intense marketing effort, but there are young freelances who will really try for you, and survey companies that will offer you research. And there are always original ideas.

We don’t always expect ‘The Beautiful’ – and as I said, they don’t often go viral -but if people strove to rise above the average, there’d be no arguments from any corner.

In short, marketing or not, it’s about the story. Graphic and data vis. are great tools, but so are photos, news copy and video. Don’t use something simply because it’s trending, or simply for the sake of using it.

Think of a brilliant story, and use whatever medium will tell it best. It will make the best journalism, the best marketing tool, and the most viral product.

And that’s coming from someone who’s worked in data journalism, is a PR, and loves talking about infographics.

Conquering the Dusty Shelf Report: Data Visualization for Evaluation
Smell Maps: Beyond the visualisation of data