Infographics: The Art of Making Information Comprehendible

We read and hear a lot about carbon emissions these days. Steaks, lattes, and disposable diapers are translated into pounds or kilograms per unit of time. Carbon is a greenhouse gas and implicated in global warming. We’re urged to reduce our carbon footprints. We want to understand and to act, but we’re presented with so many statistics that it’s difficult to make sense of them. They become white noise.

If information is presented graphically, however, we make connections far more easily.

Big Vortex is a German art installation designed to make carbon pollution, a colorless gas remember, visible by converting smoke from a power plant into a smoke ring about 100 feet in diameter. Smoke rings are eye-catching but don’t provide the statistical data of a bar graph.  A bar graph can compare nations, but what if we want more detail? What if we want to focus on specific behaviors or devices? That would require a big bar graph. But look here:  This interactive graphic is an elegant way to supply a lot of information. And being able to compare carbon emissions easily helps develop perspective. One last carbon graphic. Lighting accounts for 20% of the world’s energy use. Using LED lighting can reduce that to 4% according to this graphic.

Infographics is the art of making information comprehendible. An internet search of “infographics” produces some striking examples. Here are just a few: Unrest in Arab Countries, Hearing Loss, Who Cares if Honey Bees Are Dying?, and Where Do People See the Most UFOs?. As teachers, we understand that getting someone’s attention is a big part of teaching. Infographics are intended to do that.

So what can you do in the classroom? The Learning Network at the New York Times has a section devoted to using infographics in all subject classrooms. An art teacher might want to show how artists revise as they work. This graphic reveals Matisse’s changing ideas during eight years of work on “Bathers by the River.” A music teacher might want to show how the music industry has changed. This graphic reveals the rise and fall of audio technologies.

Though the above examples are sophisticated and, for the most part, computer generated, they don’t have to be.

Milton Glaser, the graphic artist famous for iconic posters said: “Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking.” So, pass out the supplies, roll up your sleeves, and get dirty. Students like that. Well, some do. On her education blog and in her own graphic, Silvia Tolisano lists three steps in producing infographics: define your goals, refine your data, design your graphic. The charts and graphs we build in math, the plot elements we sequence in language arts, and the timelines we create in social studies use skills that can be applied to other subjects, and artistic talent and imagination can be used to present information.

Phil Nast taught his Ohio sixth graders all subjects, though his favorite periods were language arts and social studies. Two of his language arts classes staged versions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One year, his social studies students covered the classroom walls with glyphs from Mayan ruins. He has been a freelance writer for educational projects in print and on the web. He has an MFA and has been published in obscure poetry magazines.

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