Skewing Truth With Design

Posted by on Jan 3, 2012 in design | No Comments

Dartmouth College Political Scientists recently released a report saying that infographics might be the best way to alter peoples beliefs about a particular subject. More specifically, they were looking at two items, 1. “people tend to resist unwelcome information”, and 2. “whether graphical corrections may be more effective than text” at changing peoples minds. What they found: “Graphical corrections are also found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction.”

Well, duh! Designers have known this for decades. This is how we get you to buy a coke, think Target clothes are cool and convince you to buy a product you don’t need. Design is a visual solution to deliver information. However, when that information is handled poorly or in a misleading manner it becomes propaganda.

Bloomberg’s Businessweek created a nice example of how easy it is to visually skew non-related data to mislead consumers into false conclusions. These are pretty funny but they do illustrate a real truth of how design could transform into propaganda.

One of my favorite books dealing with this issue is by Edward R Tufte. In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte deals extensively with the propensity of designers to unknowingly (or knowingly) skew data when compiling it visually. Trying to make data fun or decorative lends itself to creating propaganda if the information is not properly cared for and treated with great respect.

Tufte goes into great detail along with real world examples of how data should be treated and displayed to attain the most unbiased positions possible. An obvious must read for anyone creating infographics, but more importantly a must read for anyone who is interested in being able to recognize false information and disseminate the truth.

Obviously people look at graphics before digging into text. We are visual creatures. The old example was a newspaper – have you ever read the entire thing, or just flipped through to find something interesting? Now its, do you read all the text on all the websites you visit – or just look for something interesting and then dig in? Why does a book have a fancy cover and not simply the first page of text from the book?

A better study for Dartmouth might have been to calculate the percentage of false information that is communicated through misleading graphics instead of trying to decide if design works.

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