Like most people in the design community, I love infographics. Instead of having your eyes glaze over while looking at a set of numbers, they report and clarify data through a visualized narrative. To prove its popularity, infographics have started to appear all over: here, here, and here. Magazines such as Fast Company frequently feature infographics from other parts of the Web on their Twitter feed. Their formula seems to work: show an infographic; take a position; and write about it.
I agree that it’s tempting to want to write about an infographic that looks interesting, but it’s also really important to consider the way the data is presented to your readers.
In a recent post by Fast Company, Facebook is Winning Silicon Valley’s Talent War, the writer assumes that Facebook is “stealing the most talent away from others” in the Valley. Briefly looking over the infographic that’s shown in the article (below), I can see why he would make such an assumption:
Facebook has the most arrows pointing to it. Facebook’s notoriety may have also played a role in the author’s conclusion.
When I first saw this, I was a bit skeptical since it didn’t convey the data that it was trying to show. For example, the lines are all equal height even though their magnitudes differed from one another. According to Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, this is known as “a distortion in a data graphic.”
A graphic does not distort if the visual representation of the data is consistent with the numerical representation. —Edward Tufte
Another problem was the “1 to 1″ connection between LinkedIn and Apple. Technically, a green arrow should be pointing towards LinkedIn from Apple and a cyan arrow towards Apple from LinkedIn since both of these companies have the same ratio. This would have upped LinkedIn from three inward facing arrows to four (one short of Facebook).
As mentioned in Fast Company’s post (in the comment section), I wanted to take a stab at redoing this infographic based on the points mentioned above.
For starters, I pulled the small set of numbers into a Google spreadsheet and right off the bat, the numbers didn’t support the article’s assumption that Facebook was winning the talent war. It turns out that LinkedIn, and NOT Facebook, was the top drawer of talent, even if it was only by a small margin.
I then pulled these numbers into a bar graph, which shows the breakdown of hires for each company.
According to the article,
Google is drawing most of its talent from the stodgy halls of Microsoft; Facebook, meanwhile, is drawing from other hot startups.
Based on the bar graph above, it is apparent that Facebook has drawn more employees “from the stodgy halls of Microsoft.” 25 more than Google to be exact. My assumption here is that in the original infographic, the red arrow that points from Microsoft to Google along with its close proximity might have visually deceived the writer.
The next step was to bring all this information together into the final infographic, which is very similar to the original graphic except that the lines are now proportionate to their respective magnitudes.
In the updated infographic, there is without a doubt that LinkedIn and Facebook are head-to-head in acquiring employees from other companies in the Valley. To better illustrate this, I removed all the other paths except for the ones associated with LinkedIn and Facebook.
As infographics become more prominent on the web, we should be mindful about what is being presented to us. No matter how pretty an infographic is, always question the way it positions the data for our consumption.