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Infographics: hype or help?

This post was written by Elly Davies and first appeared on the Epic blog on 18th February 2013.

infographic 12012 seemed to be the year of the infographic, and as we forge into 2013 it’s still going strong. My tweet stream is full of links to infographics showing emerging learning technologies, the best places to be born or even the post-modern how to tweet.

It’s the latest craze and we’re all having fun with infographics (the above infographic was created by Epic to quickly and easily showcase our commitment and results of our environmental policy) but are they just the latest trend or do they offer real learning value?

Colleagues and I have joked that infographic is simply a new word for ‘graph’. Few people get worked up over a diagram, but call it an infographic and – hey presto! – it sounds fresh, new and exciting. Yes, we’re being cheeky, but there is some truth in the jest – images have been used to communicate concepts from prehistoric cave paintings to the present day. The Guardian‘s datablog have recently shared 27 pre-computing data visualisation images from their archives. Nothing flashy, just ink on paper, but these helped to communicate points which can be difficult to get across clearly using words alone.

BBC News has also looked into the related area of data visualisations – where huge amounts of data are represented in one image. There are some interesting examples in this clip, where Emily Maitlis asks ‘Is it style over substance?’ I don’t think it is. Data visualisations allow the uninitiated and time-poor (that’s most of us then!) to explore and gain insights from vast banks of data. I can’t imagine myself reading through a long list of facts about Nobel Laureates but I can be seduced into spending several minutes exploring this beautiful visualisation by Giorgia Lupi.

When we think about communicating a learning point, it’s not a case of images versus text but how they work together. We’re told a picture paints a thousand words, but if that picture is presented without labels or captions, it’s very easy to misinterpret. Creating effective infographics is a real skill. Overcrowding with messages and hard-to-read text deem infographics unattractive and I come away none the wiser.

This is a key concept in e-learning – use words and pictures together, but do it in a way that aids (rather than hinders) understanding and recall.

Take a look at our infographic on the anatomy of a 70:20:10 Moodle course for more.