David McCandless on the Information Is Beautiful Awards and infographics

The first global award winners for data visualisation and information design have been announced. The Information Is Beautiful Awards Inspired By Kantar were set up to celebrate excellence and beauty in data visualisation, infographics and information art.

Over 1000 entries were received, and a panel of judges pored over and debated designs, before deciding on winners, including Michele Mauri's Cover-Mania and Peter rntoft's striking Refugees and immigrants, with its clever use of photography.

Author, data journalist and noted information designer David McCandless was the architect of the awards, and he spoke to .net about why they're important, and how best to create beautiful stories about data to share on the web.

.net: What was the thinking behind the awards?
McCandless: I was looking around at what everyone else was doing, and I was amazed by the quality, variety and diversity of work that's out there. But a lot of it wasn't being noticed – it just comes and goes.

On my blog I started doing 'great infographics' and retweeting to sum up the really good work I'd seen. That made me think maybe there was something there, and that we needed to celebrate this creativity. And then Kantar approached, curious about doing some awards; it seemed like a natural fit. They were prepared to chuck a load of money in, and I thought 'young designers, young people experimenting creatively, need money to support them, and they need the recognition'. This was an opportunity to give both out.

.net: How important are infographics now? Do you think they're increasingly necessary for people to digest some of the sheer amount of information thrown at them daily?
McCandless: My desire to do infographics came out of a bewilderment and frustration regarding information – huge amounts were flowing into my life, but this didn't seem to be increasing my understanding of anything, or at least allowing me to link up and connect and get some context for what was going on.

For something like the Middle East, that's a classic situation. It's covered by the news and vitally important geopolitically, but no-one ever stops to explain what's going on. It's all assumed knowledge in the media and news.

So, yeah, we're all moving a lot faster and don't really have time to digest details and information. Infographics are a great way for getting condensed information in a very short space of time, using the great circuitry your brain has.

.net: People do often respond better to visual stimuli than to a sea of black characters on a white background…
McCandless: And I think alongside this glut of information, there's an increase in visual and design literacy. We look at the internet and information design every day, and I think it's schooling us to accept and understand language in visual form: shape, colour, size, lines, proximity – all those things that can convey certain types of information.

.net: So how important do you think it is now for infographics to not only be visually arresting but also strive to be unique? Do you think the awards stand out in any particular way?
McCandless: Some of the awards have managed to hit that sweet spot where they've harmonised really good data, a really great story that's interesting, topical or charged, and beauty – a really good graphic design or really interesting visual approach. That's the holy grail – on a Venn diagram, a great infographic is the middle of those three elements. Some of the award winners really got it. But if one of those things goes out of kilter, like if you've a really good graphic, great data but not a good story, you can just end up with eye candy.

.net: We liked one entry in particular, Refugees and immigrants. There are a lot of vector-design-with-gradients infographics, but here was one choosing to use photography.
McCandless: I love that piece as well. When designing you always try to have the visual relate or resonate with the content, and maybe that's the colour or icons or pictographs used, but until rntoft did that piece nobody thought you could use real-life photography.

.net: On the flipside, there is also a feeling that infographics themselves are becoming a bit too tempting for someone to throw out these days, and many of them aren't nearly as well conceived as your award-winning pieces…
McCandless: Like you, I've noticed that during the last two years or so the volume of infographics has gone through the roof, and there is a lot of not particularly great work out there that's somewhat saturating. But I still see the really good ones surfacing, and getting passed around. When they touch you and impact on you, you really do want to share them, because they are awesome and great to digest. So I think the community in a way is protecting us from lesser works.

.net: Do you have any dos and don'ts for people considering making their own infographics to share online?
McCandless: To get back to what I was saying earlier, I think a lot of people look at infographics and think it's a design form. They think it's just about getting some data and making it pretty. But the invisible glue is the story or the context – you've really got to have a strong idea or story or concept, maybe even before you start researching and designing. Like any story, to have relevance or impact it has to be probing or interesting. If you can start there, you'll end up with a better infographic.

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