The brightly colored infographic comparing the many styles of Justin Bieber projected on the wall of Devlin 101 on Tuesday evening was seemingly trivial. Pulitzer Prize-winner Gareth Cook’s message was not: the power of visual thinking can be harnessed to communicate where words and unorganized data fail.
His new book Best American Infographics 2014, the second volume in a series, explores the importance of infographics in the multiplicity of new media. With contributions to NewYorker.com, Wired, Scientific American, the Washington Monthly, and the Boston Globe Ideas section, Cook knows exactly how powerful these visual representations can be.
“There’s this constant sort of arms race between technology that overwhelms us and technology that gives us that makes sense of it, that gives us that sort of ‘ah’ feeling,” he said. “And on the front line of that battle right now, I would argue, are infographics.”
From the cavemen’s development of maps to the invention of Google, Cook cited examples across time of humans trying to make sense of the world. While infographics are not actually that new—Cook pointed out that the line graph was invented at the end of the 18th century—the accessibility to computers and large sets of data have made them far more possible.
Roughly half the human brain is devoted to visual processing, he noted. Infographics, Cook said, are so widely successful because of how the brain is wired. “You can think of infographics as a kind of applied neuroscience,” he said.
The messages behind the infographics, however, do not often show a scientific impartialness. Cook emphasized how every infographic creator has an agenda of some kind. From an impenetrable depiction of the Obamacare bureaucracy to a map showing the top-paid employees in every state, Cook said that every infographic creator is making an argument, citing an example of the highest-paid employee map. “They stripped this down,” he said, referring to the map. “There’s all sorts of information they could’ve included on this, but they wanted you to focus on this simple fact.”
Infographics can teach how to show a reader how to make mashed potatoes or demonstrate the process of how the pope is elected, and Cook made sure to reflect this in his collection. “I wanted the collection to focus as a yearbook almost—these are some of the things people were talking about, thinking about,” he said. “You saw the pope, Justin Bieber. These are two of the great issues of the time,” he added dryly, to the amusement of the crowd.
Cook said that he hopes that his collection will be able to reflect this cultural moment, and that infographics have become a graphical conversation. Now, there are not only infographics, but also infographic satires, some of which Cook displayed to the audience.
Infographics, he noted, have the potential to make people think, but they can also make viewers laugh, or be transformed into beautiful works of art. Cook said that they allow artists to innovate and harness data in a way that needs help processing the age of the bombardment of media.
“What makes infographics effective is clarity,” he said. “It’s seeing fundamental connections in something that’s otherwise overwhelming.”
Featured Image by Huifeng Qian / Heights Staff