This graphic won the ‘Peter Sullivan Award’ for printed graphics at the World Championship in infographics – The Malofiej Awards in Pamplona. This graphic is supposedly the best infographic produced by any news organization in the entire year of 2013. I have a few points (10 actually) to raise about that decision. Come play judge with me for a moment …
1. FOCUS: The most important part of the story of new gun laws can’t be about the length of the process in law making, huh? Why are the timelines the main point of the visualization then? The visual focus on when the laws passed the first and second chamber and was enacted seems out of sync with the journalistic story.
2. ABSTRACTION: The visual language is very abstract – with not even the slightest cue to the topic being shown. Our brains will remember this graph more easily as a distribution of CMYK-lines rather than anything connected to the topic of gun laws. A gun being too obvious, you say? But why not help our brains remember visually too?
3. ELITISM: Surely, to some people abstract means clever: If you painstakingly paint reality you are simple-minded – if you draw a circle and call it reality, you are sophisticated and a true artist. That tendency is well known in the world of art, where the elite hold the abstract paintings in very high regard. Is this elitist view taking over the world of infographics as well?
4. DESIGN: Look at the page layout again. I am more of an infographic artist than a graphic designer, but that page could not win a design contest. The boxes of text hanging around – the awkward way of starting the story with a lowered headline on the right side of the page?
5. SEEN BEFORE: The New York Times won the Best of show two years ago with a graphic about Guantanamo-prisoners, which looked very much the same – only in grayscale – and with more appropriate use of timelines. Nothing more exciting has happened since then? – Really?
6. BORING: Not a single person out of the hundreds to whom I have shown the Guantanamo-graphic from 2012 has expressed too much interest in the visual language of it. It looks boring and not at all visual – ‘Don’t you have something interesting to show?’ is the typical response, when I show it during a presentation.
7. DISBELIEF: Now #4 seems to repeat itself. When I returned from Spain and showed some pictures of graphics from Malofiej2014 for a presentation, no one wanted to spend time with the ‘Best of Show’ – except for expressing their disbelief in the selection.
8. JOURNALISM: The graphic without the words would be of no value. If a graphic cannot live without the words, then I am not even sure you should call it visual storytelling? Would it stand a chance, if it had not been published in English? (The language most judges can understand). They even motivated the selection of the graphic with the statement that ‘The writing is spot on’. Ok, you word-people – get out of my infographic contest, please. If the story is good, but the visuals are not, then enter it in one of the many journalistic contests around.
9. RESTRAINT: They said it in 2011 and they went for it again this year: ‘When you present your important stories with restraint, it adds to the value of the graphic’. When did this myth emerge? Or have I missed a scientific study showing that restraint is more powerful than actual power?
10. DATASET: We were told that the dataset behind this graphic is incredible deep and offers many insights. ‘The time you spend with it is worth every second because you learn so much from reading it’, they said. Ok, I have spent time with it – and sorry to say, but I learned that republicans in general favor the loosening of gun laws, while democrats in general favor restrictions. Is this a surprise? What else do we learn?
When I saw this graphic presented as the ‘Best of Show’ I honestly thought for a moment that the judges might be playing a joke on the audience. However, after watching the stern faces of the judges, I could see that this could not be the case. I got the feeling that the majority were eagerly ready to defend their decision, while the minority stayed silent, but in their body language made sure to show, that they did not support this. Sighing, lowering of shoulders, turning away from the screen was among the silent protests, I observed between the judges.
So I was happy to learn that the decision was not unanimous, and that the judges had been fighting over it for more than an hour. But maybe – if the judges cannot agree on an award, I think a better solution could be to simply abstain from handing out the ‘Best of Show’. Such an award is not meant to be the ‘Gold medal which most judges liked and others did not’. It could be argued that the ‘Best of Show’ has to be so impressive, that it is not enough with a majority vote.
The selection of a graphic as ‘Best of Show’, which clearly does not connect with the audience, has turned into a nasty annual habit. The presentation of Gold medals, which years ago used to be a time for celebration and common interest in promoting the spectacular work, is now more of a fight – a demonstration of power of the judging elite towards the ‘ignorant’ masses.
At some point that fight will be resolved – I hope the powerful and striking infographics will win against the restrained and abstract visualizations.