A review of the information graphics in GOOD #13

GOOD has gotten some attention recently with their partnership with Starbucks to develop and distribute the GOOD broadsheets. The sheets coincided with the presidential elections and so have both feed the discussion and feed from the discussion. On the value of the sheets and a look at the GOOD web site (http://good.is) I subscribed to the GOOD magazine for $10.

Issue #13, my first, arrived a week ago and I have been looking at it on and off since then. The magazine design has the spare and clean lines that I like. Great photography and editorial illustration. And I am attracted by the large number of double-page-spead information graphics. Unfortunately, the actual substance of the written and visualized content is mixed.

The first warning flag is the letters to the editor. The first several are responses to the vulgar language and graphics used in a previous issue. While I did not see the previous issue, the issue I do have also contains vulgar language and graphics. As one letter writer writes, this editorial indulgence lowers the seriousness of the discussion. Much like Sarah Palin’s winks and “heck yeas”. The remainder of the written content is interesting -- especially the “Portraits” section -- but thin. A modern magazine must have links into the web. Sadly, GOOD does not.

What initially drew me to GOOD was information graphics and so I was excited to see several pages devoted to this in the “Transparency” section. Upon close inspect they are utter rubbish. They exhibit a wide number of failings that anyone practicing information visualization should well know and innately avoid.

The “Up in smoke” graphic (no web link) is a stacked bar graph using cigarettes as the bars. Each cigarette presents a state. The length of the cigarette is the population and the length of the filter represents the percentage of smokers. The failure is that the width of the cigarette is also changed so that the relative proportions of the different cigarettes are kept constant. This results in NY’s 18.3% of smokers looking like a significantly smaller number than CA’s 14.9% of smokers. Further, the graph is organized by kinds of smoking bans -- no bans, work bans, bars bans, and restaurant bans -- and so finding your state is a hunting trip. A table would have been much better.

I am still trying to figure out “Seeking Refuge” (http://www.good.is/?p=12751). Just what does knowing “refugees per square kilometer” really tell me?

“Burning Fuel” (http://www.good.is/?p=12753) is a visual correlation between cars and humans. The energy in a gallon of gas is compared to common foods. While interesting, why is there an information graphic? Information graphics are supposed to enable the reader to make more connections between facts. I am looking to build upon what I know or have just read. And so I expect that when a human’s sticky insides are block-colored the same as the car’s insides that this has meaning. What correspondence am I to draw from the car’s seat cushions, battery, air filter, and some unknown box near the front-wheels's transmission with the human’s heart, liver, and mussels? Isn’t color coding a universal information graphic best-practice? Yes.

Lastly, the graphic “The three-trillion-dollar war” (http://www.good.is/?p=12755) is a perfect example of how to present a simple list (as is done on the right side of the graphic) as a complex maze of weak visual analogies. Perhaps I am missing something deeper. I want the visual to have meaning. I am rooting for the illustrator. But, in the end, I don’t think I am missing anything: It has no meaning. It is just a picture.

I am not a practitioner of information graphics. I am a consumer and a fan. I do know how to read this stuff and I know that some visual languages need to be learned before they can be read. I am willing to put the time in to understanding the visual just as much as I am in the understanding the prose. Don’t give me interesting pictures pretending to be information graphics. Please.

Let’s hope the next GOOD is not a DOOG.