The state of graphic design?

This type of data graphics have been gaining popularity on the web in the past few years. For better or worse, they have popularised the idea of information design amongst graphic designers. This graphic came through my Facebook news feed this morning, and to me the approach to the design itself and the rather empty and superficial content reflect the sorry state of graphic design these days.

The title is grand, but how can the ‘state of graphic design’ really be summed up in a mere data graphic? To many graphic designers or web junkies, at first glance this might be a visually engaging graphic. But don’t be fooled: this graphic is a textbook example of what not to do in data visualisation. Just plotting some numbers in a chart-like graphic does not necessarily mean that it is based on facts.

Before we delve into the actual graphic, let’s see where the data came from. So reading the first paragraph we know that it is based on the ‘opinion of dozens of the best and [most] talented graphic designers in the industry’. Alright, opinions, got that. But who are these people? At the bottom of the chart, we see names of 23 people who were acknowledged, but no further details are given. That already leaves me wonder how credible this graphic is, and how can the opinions of a mere 23 people represent the state of graphic design. Why do their opinions matter anyway? There are also two sources in the bottom right corner. These are US Department of Labour’s statistics and overview on the graphic design profession. Only four entries of data actually came from these (presumbably more credible) sources.

We are told that the survey questions are based on a 10-point rating system, from 1 being not important to 10 being very important. Alright. At this point I should really close my browser window and move onto something else, but I’ll press on.


How to learn the field: are these bell curves, or are they really bars in a bar chart? We are told that these are average ratings on the 10-point scale for each category. But what does ‘importance’ mean in this context? What are the ratings based on? We don’t know. And how can you compare the value of design books with a bona fide design education at a university? The colours apparently do not mean anything specific, but only to enliven the graphic.


What designers need to know: this is very similar to Nightingale’s Rose, where the radii of the wedges (not the angle of each wedge as in a pie chart) are encoded with the quantitative data. The data has been exaggerated by the pronounced graphic effect of the areas of the wedges. A simple bar chart would be much clearer. But the main flaw lies in the survey question itself: why these ‘knowledge areas’? Why is blogging even on the list?


Key skills: okay, this time just a bar chart. But the chart only shows those skills that are rated as ‘very important’. Why decontextualise this from the 10-point scale and hide the rest of the data from us?


Which tools matter: again this should have been done as a simple bar chart, or better yet, just show the numbers in list format. Putting a bar chart in a circular format not only makes comparison more difficult, the concentric circles also hopelessly distort the data. This data-thin ‘chart’ (if we could even call it that), is mere decoration. The fact that this graphic all about software tools shows how the designer/author views graphic design: as a primarily production-oriented activity.


Favourite tool: another question on tools! Tag cloud as a data visualisation format is hopelessly flawed: the cap-height of the text is encoded with quantitative data (with no scale shown, or where the data came from). But the varying word lengths distort the data. The light blue ‘Adobe Creative Suite’ has been misleadingly emphasised.


Marketing and self promotion: ever since Otto Nuurath’s ISOTYPE system introduced in post-World War I Europe, we know that the size of a graphic is not a good way for encoding data. Instead, multiple pictograms should be used, so that data may be more accurately compared.


Time savers: is this a pie chart? Apparently not, because the wedges are of equal size. This format was chosen to serve the metaphor of a stop-watch to represent ‘time’, not the data.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you get my point. Does’t this graphic reflect the true state of graphic design? Content-thin, evidence-weak, and decoration in disguise – a classic case of graphic design as styling in an ironic, self-referential way. Definitely not what I’d call information design.

Categories design education, information design
Tags ,