Data visualization: Is a picture worth a thousand words or a wasteful effort?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

That’s why ‘Data Visualization‘ was born.

Actually, I’m a big fan of data visualization. Without this beautiful infographic, I will never understand how a car engine work(lol).

how-care-engine-works infographic

However, the way we are praising data visualization is somewhat pompous. It makes us completely blind to the risks of visualized data.

Data misinterpretation

In a study about graphic representations of information, Bresciani and Eppler conclude that there are three potential risks inherent in visualization:

De-focused: When creating a graphic, it can be tempting to focus more on the layout than on function. Be careful! Too many unnecessary ornaments or too many unrelated elements emphasized at the same time can distract audiences. They don’t know where to to focus, thus get completely confused about the graphic.

Disturbing: Some images can shock or upset the viewers. This echoes with the findings from Seeing Data project, a research conducted by data visualization expert Andy Kirk. Andy indicates that although the viewers tend to not exactly remember the data from the graphics, they could remember the overall impressions, and, significantly, the emotions that the graphics evoked. Therefore, designers need to pay careful attention to the emotional aspect of graphics because this can affect the way the audiences interpret data through visualizations.

Cultural and cross-cultural differences. Because of the heterogeneity of audiences, some graphic representations may be misinterpreted. For example, Western viewers tend to focus on the foreground, while east-Asian audiences focus on the whole picture and the background. Color meaning also varies in different cultures. Thus, designers need to consider cultural elements, especially when creating visualizations for cross-cultural audiences.

The rise of lazy audiences

We need to do infographics because our audiences become so lazy. Reading data is more work than their lazy brands want to do. This makes me upset thinking of infographic and all kinds of data visualizations.

Data journalist’s role is to access and present the data on the public’s behalf. However, it is public’s responsibility to analyze and draw understanding from data themselves.

If someone is interested in a specific topic, he/she will give the most effort to consume a whole load of information. If they think this kind of knowledge is too boring and useless for them, then creating an infographic to help them understand that topic is just a waste of time. What for?

We tend to think data visualization is trendy. But why we need to make that fancy animated infographic just to explain how to eat an artichoke (lol).


Again, I love data visualization. However, data visualization sometimes can make audiences confused about the content rather than making it easier for them to consume the data. Moreover, as media professionals, we need to consider carefully when data visualization should be used and how. It’s a waste of time and effort to follow the graphic trend without a clear purpose.