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Misleading Information Graphics

As designers, it is our job to be able to manipulate images to convey ideas. But what happens when designers manipulate  images to the point that the design moves beyond a creative representation and on to a downright lie?  This is a question that designers must ask themselves when dealing with information graphics in particular. Whether you are writing an annual report for a major corporation, depicting the statistics of national unemployment rates for a major news publication, or depicting nutritional information on a box of cereal,  designers should be responsible for their designs and remain mindful of the perceptions of their designs so that the information they are depicting is not misleading or straight up false.

There are countless examples of how information graphics have been used to manipulate information. When researching this topic a little bit, I found some interesting examples, some from “legimtate” and reputable news sources, companies, etc. One clear example*, from The Wall Street Journal in 2004, inaccurately graphs the amount of money spent on edMoney For Nothingucation in the U.S. between 1990 and 2003 in relation to average student test scores. The article accompanying the information graphic discusses how the government was spending extremely large amounts of money on education without the results to justify the huge expenditure.

Here are the issues with this information graphic :

The graph on the left does not account for inflation or for the general increase in the number of students being educated in America from population increases. At first glance, the chart would appear to show that more money is being spent, when in reality the percentages of costs per pupil vary much less.  The chart on the right shows the average student scores for a standardized test for 4th graders only. The scale goes from 0-500, with 500 being the absolute maximum score that relatively few students achieve. The average score on the same test when taken by high school seniors is just over 300. For fourth graders to be scoring in the 200’s seems pretty good! Not to mention, using the average is not a very accurate representation of the distribution of the data. (It is certainly the easiest to chart though!) The other issue with these charts is that the chart on the left is depicting the total amount of money spent on all students in America from grades K-12, but the chart on the right only shows the test scores for 4th graders. A more accurate way to depict this information would be to compare the total cost of education per pupil vs. the results on standardized test scores. This is not a flashy example of misleading information graphics, but it easily demonstrates the manipulation of information and images.

Ultimately, it is not the responsibility of the reader or the consumer to analyze information graphics (though clearly it is necessary) to ensure their accuracy. It is the responsibility of the designer to protect the interests of the public and refrain from misleading the public via falsely depicted information.

FYI: Only in recent years has AIGA added a section on “The Designers Responsibility to the Public” to their Standards for Professional Practice. Regardin this issue, the standards** say:

The designer’s responsibility to the public

6.1 A professional designer shall avoid projects that will result in harm to the public.

6.2 A professional designer shall communicate the truth in all situations and at all times; his or her work shall not make false claims nor knowingly misinform. A professional designer shall represent messages in a clear manner in all forms of communication design and avoid false, misleading and deceptive promotion.

6.3 A professional designer shall respect the dignity of all audiences and shall value individual differences even as they avoid depicting or stereotyping people or groups of people in a negative or dehumanizing way. A professional designer shall strive to be sensitive to cultural values and beliefs and engages in fair and balanced communication design that fosters and encourages mutual understanding.

References:

*http://lilt.ilstu.edu/jpda/charts/bad_charts1.htm#Wall_Street

**http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/standards-professional-practice

One Comment

  1. laurenguiffre wrote:

    I think the first AIGA rule here is a little broad. “A professional designer shall avoid projects that will result in harm to the public.” This “harm to the public” doesn’t seem to have a black or white answer, but we as young designers must navigate through these different shades of gray. Maybe there needs to be more regulation on this instead of leaving it up to the designer who really just wants to be able to pay their rent and doesn’t want to risk being fired over one project. Maybe AIGA needs to further define these responsibilities a little more than a few sentences so that more designers would feel compelled (if they actually have a conscience) to uphold them.

    Monday, September 28, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink

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