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Throwdown: Data Visualization vs. Infographics

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Numbers are prickly things to a lot of people. They strike fear into the hearts of many, and baffle many more. But something magical happens when those numbers become a friendly image, easily grasped at a glance. It’s then that those numbers become a story.

Journalists have tapped into the power of infographics and data visualization as storytelling for years. Consider Adrian Holovaty’s chicagocrime.org, which took publicly available data and plotted it on a map. Now they even have a cute intro video with the friendliest, most reassuring voice over you’ve ever heard and graphics that all but smile at you as they show how many meth labs are down the street.

When it’s time to tell your story, however, you’ll have to make a choice between data visualization and infographics. Similar, and often confused, both of these methods have much to offer, depending on your project.

What’s your story, morning glory? Data visualization or Infographic?

Both data visualization and infographics turn raw data into images that nearly anyone can easily understand – making them invaluable tools for explaining the significance of digits to people who are more visually oriented. From there, however, they diverge – and their differences are even more important than their similarities when it’s time to choose which one you need for your project, presentation, blog, or e-book.


  • Hand-crafted every time
  • Made for one specific dataset
  • Context-sensitive
  • Tells a premeditated story
  • Best for guiding the conclusions of the audience

Data visualization

  • Automatically generated
  • Creates images for arbitrary datasets
  • Context-free
  • Ideal for understanding data at a glance
  • Best for allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions

Neither is free from bias, and both require a knowledgeable person behind the wheel to see the bigger picture and fine-tune as needed. (The confusion between the two often stems from using data visualization within infographics, a common practice.)

Pop-Quiz: Data visualization or Infograph?

If there is one name you should know in data visualization and infographics, it’s Charles Minard, a 19th-century engineer who pioneered using graphics to explain statistics. Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 is still a jaw-dropper because it manages to show 6 types of data on a 2-dimensional plane.


In this graphic, you have:

  1. The number of Napoleon’s troops
  2. Distance traveled
  3. Temperature
  4. Latitude and longitude
  5. Direction of travel
  6. Locations on specific dates

And if you’ve guessed that this is an infographic, you’re right. Even though it looks at 6 datasets, it still tells one very specific story, within a specific context, and is hand-crafted.

But what about when you want to prove a point rather than tell a story? This is where data visualization can shine. Let’s say you’re creating a presentation for a client in which you want to argue that they’ll gain more ROI from publishing content on LinkedIn than on Facebook.


Who can argue with a bright blue bar graph?

Whatever your message may be, data visualization can make it into a compelling story.

If you’d like to prove a point supported by data, check out How to Tell a Story with Data.

Telling True Stories with Data Visualization

Content marketing is headed in the direction of being more interactive, and data visualization is heralding the way. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly important for marketers and advertisers to understand how to think more critically about the data that they share and how they present it.

As data visualization blogger and postdoctoral researcher Randy Olsen says:


There is a tendency to not question data, which means that the responsibility for telling true stories with data falls on those creating the visualizations. To avoid accidentally misleading your audience (or yourself) and committing costly mistakes, you need some basic education in statistics.

Did you hear about the Shareaholic data debacle? Last year they published a report claiming that Reddit’s referral traffic was crashing – when nothing could have been further from the truth (they were up by 66%). How did they get “crashing” from that? A basic lack of statistical knowledge.

Shareaholic based their report on Reddit’s referral traffic from just two dates – December 2012 and December 2013. Statistics 101 tells us that two points do not make a trend (three points or more make a trend), and really, you should be looking at all available data.

Even the best data visualization tools and infographics are only as good as the people putting the numbers in and explaining the images that come out. Before you put pen to paper for that infographic, or use Visage’s handy tools to prove your point, dig a little deeper into your numbers to find out where they come from, and what story they’d really like to tell.