Saturday, July 7, 2012

Venn Diagrams, SmartArt, and A Call for Graphic Excellence

Two unrelated items converged for me today:
  • Recent failure of the Romney campaign to create a valid Venn diagram. (Ezra Klein reviewed on the Rachel Maddow show July 3rd, referencing fantastic post on Upworthy.) 
  • Proliferation of meaningless “SmartArt” diagrams and bad charts in files that come through my inbox. (SmartArt: neither smart nor art.) 
Both represent a bad and growing habit in business, politics, and culture that involves “spicing up your text” without the requisite critical thinking about why and how to do it. It’s part of a broader trend that I call the template culture that confuses actual design skill with the ability to use hackneyed software features and bright colors to create something ”that really pops.“

Unfortunately for all of us, cardboard cutout designers get it wrong. Frequently.

It’s bad for their clients and customers, it’s bad for the design profession, and it’s bad for civil society at large when flash and bullshit take the place of good design – the kind of design that helps clarify and reveal ideas instead of clouding and concealing them. At best, this kind of graphic nonsense is an amusing and colorful waste of space, but at worst it can actually do harm. It can misrepresent ideas and facts, confuse audiences, and generally muddy any topic.

Edward Tufte, the patron saint of information graphics, used the term Graphical Integrity to describe a sort of Hippocratic oath for designing charts and diagrams. It’s pretty simple: don’t lie. Of course, to not lie, one first has to think about and understand some things before jumping into Powerpoint world, such as:
  • What does the data mean (if you don’t have data, this could be an issue)? 
  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is the goal of the overall piece, the goal of the graphic? 
  • What s the most effective way to present that information graphically to help clarify an idea? 
Sadly, none of these questions can be answered with the SmartArt selector (or similar tools in Keynote, Prezi, etc.). It’s not Microsoft’s fault, they do a great job – and have gotten much better – at trying to embed some of this thinking into their products. But templates, no matter how well-designed, aren’t a substitute for a critical-thinking person, like an experienced graphic designer.

Marketing person, graphic artist, business person, journalist, educator – I’m talking to you. Here’s a challenge:

  • If you don’t know who Edward Tufte is, you should. Look it up, read one of his books, take his class. Dan Roam is a good substitute (less theory, more humor). 
  • If you’ve used SmartArt in any Microsoft product without first sketching something by hand, stop. Draw your next idea by hand first (a whiteboard is fine). 
  • If you have ever used the phrase “punchy” or “really pop“ when describing the need for a graphic, please avoid these and other similar phrases for the next six months. Instead, try this one: “what is the purpose of this chart or diagram?” 
  • If you don’t know how to edit every part of a Microsoft chart, including what to take out, please learn this skill and, more importantly, why you might want to do that. 
  • If you use charts and diagrams in your work, and you don’t know a genuine graphic designer, you should get to know one. They will help you succeed. (Hint: they often refer to what they do as “problem solving” and rarely lead with a list of software mastery or use terms like “innovative solutions.”) 
Let’s start a movement for graphic excellence. Everyone wins.

(I also discussed diagrams without meaning 18 months ago.)

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