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January 6, 2012

Information is Beautiful? Only if you like a totally useless mess of nothingness


I have a problem with David McCandless of Information is Beautiful.  From his own website he says:

A passion of mine is visualizing information – facts, data, ideas, subjects, issues, statistics, questions – all with the minimum of words.

I’m interested in how designed information can help us understand the world, cut through BS and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath. Or, failing that, it can just look cool!

So let’s look at a couple of these statements in the context of his latest infographic


Has David met any of his own criteria?  Let’s check.

  1. Minimum of words – No! All this infographic contains is words…horrible!
  2. Facts – Maybe. If you consider a bunch of words facts, then I guess he meets this criteria.
  3. Data – No, not even close
  4. Ideas – No, nothing that I can see
  5. Can help us understand – No, not for me
  6. Reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories – No, absolutely not!
  7. It can just look cool – Seriously?

To summarize, this is one of the worst infographics I’ve EVER seen.  Shouldn’t we expect better from an “expert”?  It’s impossible to gleam even the slightest bit of insight or data outside two things: nationality and that the album falls somewhere in the top 21. 

How am I supposed to deduce the rank?  The size?  The width? The font? The location?  I have no idea and no one else will likely know either.  Throw me a bone and at least give me some type of instructions for making sense of this mess.

And another thing.  Why the top 21?  At first, I thought the list only went to 21, but lists the top 30.  And four albums are tied for 20th.  The top 21 makes no sense whatsoever!  Maybe David likes blackjack?

Let’s consider the definition of an infographic from Wikipedia (not the defining source, I know).  I’ve bolded what I consider the key points.

Information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics present complex information quickly and clearly.

Did David meet any of these criteria?

  1. Graphic visual representation – No, he merely created a wordle.
  2. Present complex information quickly and clearly – No. I can’t garner any insights quickly and clearly.  Can you?

Ok, you can tell that I think his work is a totally useless mess.  But how would I present the data to allow for quick and clear insights?  I’d use Tableau.

My viz may not be an “infographic” in its purest sense since it doesn’t have all of the cute pictures, figurines, and unnecessary clutter, but I have met David’s criteria, the criteria for an infographic, plus much more.

  1. Graphic visual representation – Check
  2. Present complex information quickly and clearly – Check
  3. Minimum of words – Check
  4. Facts – Check
  5. Data – Check
  6. Ideas – Check 
  7. Can help us understand – Check
  8. Reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories – Check
  9. It can just look cool – Check

But Tableau let’s you go above and beyond.

  • Interact with the filters and highlighting
  • Change the Points Type
  • Filter and/or highlight nationalities
  • The data is ALWAYS ranked based on the selections you make

I’m sick and tired and tired and sick of seeing useless infographics like this one.  I won’t keep my finger crossed that they’re going away anytime soon though.


  1. Nice "Stephen Few-like" tirade Andy! Well done. This viz McCandless viz does not look cool at all. It's even bad as far word clouds go.

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  3. I think the honest part of David McCandless' work is his company / blog name. I think that he has had success in making information beautiful. What he does not typically do though is make information useful and that is what irks so many of us for whom that is our primary focus.

    The challenge for all of us must be to recognise that somehow many people are beguiled by the form of the data presented even more than the function - McCandless has been on TED for goodness' sake.

    The question must be: how can we keep function and usefulness the primary objective of our work but still create something that has a simple beauty to it too? When we do that, then we'll have something which keeps both the utilitarians (data viz types) and the aesthetes (infographics types) happy.

  4. Mel,

    I agree that sometimes David's work can be beautiful. Heck, he says himself that if all else fails make it pretty. But this particular infographic doesn't even come close to being something beautiful. It looks like paint thrown on a wall.


  5. You're right, of course. I'm not defending this or any other of the many staggeringly poor examples of work that we look at and without hesitation say 'well that's an infographic, not a data visualisation'. Yet somehow these infographics are still popping up in newspapers and magazines and McCandless is regarded as someone who is advancing a field when we're all looking at them in horror.

    We've got to take this on and make sure that information is useful and beautiful but only in that order.

    (I wish I'd just written that last part first!)

    Keep up the great work, Andy.

  6. Based on how bad his infographic is, you would almost think David McCandless works for USA Today...

  7. Dude. Your site has a tag cloud. Glass houses...

    (or are you currently rebuilding your tag cloud in Tableau server?)

  8. Al, you are absolutely right. The difference, however, is that I'm not pretending that it's any type of analysis whatsoever.

    Tag clouds are meant to be a shortcut for people to find topics of interest...that's it.