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Alberto Cairo

About to release his second book, Alberto Cairo shares his thoughts and experiences with us.

June 26, 2012
(foto: divulgação / Alberto Cairo)

It’s arguably impossible to be somehow involved with editorial design and infographics without coming across, eventually, with the name of Alberto Cairo. His work could speak for himself: several awards won throughout his career in newspapers and magazines,  a teacher at the School of Communication (University of Miami), about to launch his second book, and a regular presence in all the major conferences and events related to visual journalism.

But Cairo is far from being just another dedicated and talented professional. His concerns with the ethics surrounding infographic design are well known – who doesn’t remember the manifest that gathered 106 signatories from 27 countries, calling for higher standards for infographics and proposing a six-point checklist to insure such standards are met?

These concerns are quite justified. As the term ‘infographic’ goes mainstream and stretches itself further and further away from the work done in the newsrooms, Alberto Cairo  – and his ‘legion’ of pupils and colleagues – act as a much needed reminder of Edwuard Tufte’s famous quote that designing an information graphic is a moral act as much as an intellectual act.

We asked a few questions to Alberto about his experience in newsrooms around the world, the teaching of data visualization in schools and his new book.

Visual Loop (VL) – During your career, you had the chance to get to know very closely the reality of ‘visual journalism’ across different parts of the world. In what way is infographic design influenced by a country’s cultural and socio-economic context?

Albert Cairo (AC) – There are interesting connections between culture and graphics. In the US, for instance, the tradition of objective and detached journalism has derived into an infographics style that is serious, almost dry, and that aspires to be precise and informative, above all. In Brazil, infographics tend to be more colorful and fun. And the style of diverse publications also shape the way graphics are designed: The New York Times’ graphics are necessarily different to the ones made by local popular tabloids in Peru. It cannot be otherwise, as their audiences are so different.

That said, some people take this trivial fact and use it to argue that there are not general, underlying universal rules for information graphics and visualization design. They are wrong. Human visual perception is grounded on a single set of biological and psychological principles, regardless of culture. Cultural differences should be take into account, but being aware that there are common foundations for what we do.

Human visual perception is grounded on a single set of biological and psychological principles, regardless of culture. Cultural differences should be take into account, but being aware that there are common foundations for what we do.

VL – The term ‘Infographic’ gained popularity in the Internet in recent years. In newsrooms, however, they’ve been around for a long time. Did this sudden ‘digital interest’ carried any significant impact for those working in the field?

AC – I believe so. On the positive side, today there are more infographics than ever before, and this is good, as people with graphics and visualization skills will be in high demand. On the negative side, the “infographics” promoted by marketing and PR agencies are not infographics in the strict sense of the word, as they are not true displays of information created to enlighten, but ads, promotional material. I talk about them here and here. I don’t have anything against ads, of course: there are great designers out there who do fantastic promotional work. But I do have something against ads in disguise, the ones that I criticize in those posts.

VL -In the manifest published back in 2011 on the Harvard Nieman Watchdog, wrote by you and Juan Antonio Giner, it was clear the concern with the rigor of ‘visual journalism’. Is there any connection, in  your opinion, between the rise of bad practices in information graphics and the crisis the News Industry is facing?

AC – I don’t know if the relationship between bad and unethical journalism and the crisis of news media is direct, but I do believe that they are factors that explain why audiences trust us less than they used to in the past. As I mention in a recent article, designing an information graphic, a visual display of data or phenomena, is a moral act. We should strive for clarity, rigor, and depth. That’s the way to regain the credibility we’ve lost, as a community.

Designing an information graphic, a visual display of data or phenomena, is a moral act. We should strive for clarity, rigor, and depth. That’s the way to regain the credibility we’ve lost, as a community.

VL – Your experience as an Educator provided you with a unique vision about the teaching of information design in the context of educational policies. Therefore, the question: at what point should Tufte be a mandatory read in the classroom?

AC – I believe you are asking when we should start teaching principles of graphic display to our children. The answer is: as soon as possible, I think. Kids should learn how to read and create graphics from a very young age. Most kids are natural-born artists, as we humans are a visual species. We should take advantage of that, as graphics and illustrations can be such a powerful weapon for understanding and communicating. This is not a new idea: Rufolf Arnheim proposed it in his classic “Visual Thinking“, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Some educational systems are taking a few steps: a few months ago, for instance, I felt happy to see that my kid, who is in Kindergarten, was learning how to read a very simple bar chart (see here)

VL – To close, tell us a little about your new book, The Functional Art.

AC – The Functional Art  is an introduction to information graphics and visualization. The main idea of the book is that graphics should be thought of not just as “art” in the traditional sense of “visual arts”, but as tools for understanding.

This seems to be a no-brainer, but it is not. If you think that your graphic should work as a tool that readers will use to better understand an issue, you should design it in a way that facilitates comprehension. Therefore, the functions of your graphic impose constraints on the variety of shapes you can use to represent your data or phenomena. The very simple and basic example I use in conferences is comparison charts: if you want your readers to be able to accurately compare some figures, don’t encode them with bubbles, as the human brain is not very good at comparing areas. Use a bar chart instead.

Information graphics should be aesthetically pleasing but many designers think about aesthetics before they think about structure, about the information itself, about the story the graphic should tell. That is a big problem, and another main theme in the book.

The book is divided into four parts: the first one (Foundations) deals with what information graphics are and are not. The second (Cognition) explains the human visual perception system and how its limits and quirks affect the way we design graphic. The third (Practice) is a collection of step-by-step explanations of several projects. The fourth (Profiles) showcases the work of a dozen of designers I admire.

 Information graphics should be aesthetically pleasing but many designers think about aesthetics before they think about structure, about the information itself, about the story the graphic should tell.

We just want to thank Alberto for finding the time to answer our questions, and for sharing his unique perspective on the field of information design. You can find out more about Alberto’s work at the The Functional Art blog, and keep up with his activities on Twitter (@albertocairo).

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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