Why Is It So Hard To Make Great Food Infographics?

We are living in the era of the infographic. You know what I mean: the bar charts illustrating recent polls and the maps of recent shootings – or, often,lighter topics – pushed across our Twitter and Facebook timelines by news organizations looking for that extra viral boost to their stories. In the world of hard news, infographics are not new, but it’s only recently that they’ve made the leap to popular culture. Until not too long ago, they were mostly used for investigative stories, and generally embedded in the text of print articles.  But now, infographics are everywhere — including the food world. Two new books try to capitalize on that: Taste: The Infographic Book of Food (Aurum Press, October 2015), and A Visual Guide to Drink (Avery, November 2015).

Why do we find infographics so compelling? To answer that, let’s look to the past. Ask an expert on effective data visualizations to name the best infographics of all time, and odds are good she’ll cite two specific examples. In 1854, physician John Snow created a map of cholera outbreaks in a London neighborhood that revealed a single pump was the source; at the time, many believed that cholera was spread by noxious “miasmas” in the air, but Snow’s map proved that cholera was spread by contaminated water. Even when the truth is known, a good infographic can reveal some new ways of looking at it. Everybody already knew what a tremendously bad idea it was for Napoleon to invade Russia in 1812, but Charles Joseph Minard’s astonishing 1869 visualization of the campaign revealed just how devastating it was by overlaying troop strength and temperatures on top of a map of Napoleon’s advance and retreat.

Taste: The Infographic Book of Food by Laura Rowe, illustrations by Vicki Turner

Visual Guide to Drink

A Visual Guide to Drink by Ben Gibson and Patrick Mulligan for Pop Chart Lab

What do these have in common with the best infographics of today? They simplify an abundance of information to reveal the essential narrative of what they are trying to illuminate, while paring away anything else that isn’t necessary. For instance, a choropleth — that’s a fancy term for a colored map — of election results will show political boundaries and important cities, but leave out highways and national parks. But infographics are not just data visualizations. For instance, my favorite example of these principles is Harry Beck’s London Underground Map, first published in 1933, which famously disregards the precise geography of the Underground’s stations in favor of a slightly abstracted grid layout. By discarding the typical surface information people expect from a city map — major streets, notable destinations, neighborhood names — it more clearly shows the important relationships between the Tube’s subway lines and the transfers between them. It gives its users better, more readable information than they could get without it.

It’s not a surprise that the rest of the world has also started considering the appeal of the infographic. The pie charts and bar graphs once found only nested within newspapers and magazine sidebars are now another tool of any creative director; and the graphic itself is often the attraction — not just the information it conveys. That graphical imperative is at the heart of both Taste and A Visual Guide to Drink, both books of general food knowledge, both of which apply the techniques of infographics to their respective subjects. Taste, a British release, is a collaboration between Laura Rowe — editor of a UK food magazine called Crumbs — and illustrator Vicki Turner; it describes itself as a “beginner’s guide to being a foodie,” and is a combination of a food encyclopedia, miscellany, and cookbook. A Visual Guide to Drink is a production of Ben Gibson and Patrick Mulligan, of the Brooklyn design collective Pop Chart Lab, comprising a collection of graphics that distill (ha) all the information you might need about distillation and fermentation (and inebriation), the sort of book that would look at home right next to a wine guide or cocktail recipes. Both promise to bring the power of infographics to food, but only one truly delivers.

From the outset, Taste leads with a basic view on infographics, with Rowe describing them, in the introduction,  as simply “information presented in a graphic way.” With such an expansive definition, I guess she considers everything in the book — 223 pages of something she describes as an “amuse bouche” to “whet your appetite to learn more and eat more” — to be an infographic. On the surface, it looks like an appealing approach to a broad subject. The graphic design of these pages is certainly excellent, with colors and design evoking a midcentury feel that’s both nostalgic and contemporary. It’s filled with a variety of stylized diagrams — a matrix of pizza toppings! vinaigrettes as pie charts! a sausage solar system! — that are meant to add whimsy to what otherwise might be a dull compendium of facts. Rowe explains that she imagines this as a great book for insomniacs needing something to read in the middle of the night, or something you could pull from your coffee table to quiz your foodie friends. It certainly is amusing, but how well does it inform?

Even allowing Rowe’s simplified definition of an infographic, if we ask plainly how much the graphics on these pages help to convey their information, things start to fall apart. There’s a page of facts about honey where each block of text is set within a stylized lattice of a honeycomb. Take away the images, and the information on the page remains exactly the same. Similarly, a simple list of what every country calls its blood sausages is rendered as a full page spread of stylized sausage shapes with names and little flags on them.

These pages are bold and colorful — they would be lovely as posters or spreads within a food magazine — but they’re more beautiful than informative. It can get repetitive after a while, as any meal of only amuse bouches would be.  By the time I got to a list of 7 outlandishly weird ice cream flavors (bacon and eggs! avocado! breast milk!) illustrated as a scattered collection of stylized scoops with text on their labels, I found myself longing instead for a simple bulleted list without any pictures — the unadorned text of Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany, for example, which lets the absurdity and charisma of culinary trivia stand on its own.

When I browsed specifically for actual infographics, I was struck by Taste‘s particular fixation with pie charts, the book’s most frequently used chart to illustrate quantitative data. Everybody knows what a pie chart is; we’re taught about them in grade school and can make them in Excel. The thing about pie charts, though, is that they’re generally terrible. They’re good for showing when one element takes up a disproportionate piece of the pie, but that is largely all they can do — try telling the difference at a glance between a tenth and an eighth of a whole.Taste


Worse still, in Taste, they’re often not even pies. A chart that compares the proportions in several types of vinaigrette presents each recipe as a droplet, partitioned into subsections for each ingredient. Similarly, the shapes of handheld pasties are used as outlines for segmented lists of these ingredients. (Okay, pasties are pies, technically, but for the purposes of this chart, they’re the wrong kind.) Pie charts are circular for a reason: to compare the areas of two wedges in the pie, your eye only needs to compare the angles of each slice. But how do you estimate what percentage of the whole is made up by the bottom of a teardrop? I’m sure Rowe is just trying to conjure a rough idea of a data visualization without it meaning anything precise. But is there a point to an infographic that frustrates you when you try to use it as intended?

Far more vexing was another large pie chart that showed how much instant ramen the top ten countries in the world consume: I assume the decision to make it a pie chart was so the resulting figure would look more like a bowl of noodles. Unfortunately, this chart is not only hard to read, it’s actively misleading. The chart neglects to include a wedge labeled “other” to represent the rest of the world’s ramen consumption — and based on the original data on which the chart is based, it looks like that missing wedge would be the third-largest slice in the pie. On the other hand, it does look like a bowl of ramen!

This all might seem pedantic, but there are conventions to infographic design, specifically to prevent these types of basic mistakes. Essentially, these conventions are visual recipes that tell a designer how to pick the right format for what they want to represent, and the rules on how best to do that. To many graphic designers, however, the problem with conventions is that they are, well, conventional, and even though it might be clearer to show instant ramen consumption using a bar chart (and indeed, that’s how the data was presented in the original source), the appeal of doing a visual play on the top-down of a bowl might be too hard to resist.

The work should be pretty, but it’s far more important that it be correct. Many organizations that regularly rely on infographics have sussed out comprehensive style guides for their visualizations — for instance, the New York Times graphics team has specific rules, ones that dictate when charts should be certain styles, or that require counts overlaid on top of map locations to be indicated either withindividual blocks or proportionally-scaled circles, or that maps and charts should use certain color palettes — but independent designers still tend to give in to a desire to cultivate their own distinctive styles, usually by chucking out the conventions that dictate how charts should look. And so, they tweak pie charts to look like soup bowls, or replace boring bar charts with abstract compositions that are, in the end, more beautiful than legible.

Sometimes it seems like this may be intentional: Rowe specifically cites as inspiration the work of David McCandless, an infographic maker known (andcriticized) for an extremely abstract style devoid of axes or other guides to interpret his charts. But ultimately, many designers are just playing from an entirely different rulebook. Do a Google image search on the word, and you’d be hard-pressed to find the works of Snow or Minard in the results. Instead, it’s page after page of text and figures crammed into stylized frames, as if Microsoft Excel and a Dr. Bronner’s soap label were thrown into a blender, where research comes down to little more than Googling for interesting facts to fill empty spaces. Taste too often relies on this style.

But don’t let me tell you the book is all bad. I like it best when it plays to the strengths of its graphic designer: A lushly illustrated spread of what shellfish actually look like is lovely. A hierarchy of egg recipes and a chart of charcuterie complete with hanging meat shapes are both beautiful and nicely informative. I appreciated, too, the diagrams of how soy sauce and tofu are made. But too often I found that Taste‘s stated ambition — to be the infographic book on food — far exceeds its grasp, and its constant need to be whimsical ends up being a distraction rather than an advantage.

While Taste takes a broad and necessarily shallow look across the entire world of food, Pop Chart Lab’s A Visual Guide to Drink goes deep within one specific area of interest. This narrower focus gives the book an opportunity to drill down: for instance, a two page spread on the many styles of beer is annotated with page numbers of other charts in the book that express more detail on stouts or India pale ales.

With the exception of a few data visualizations that compare countries by wine consumption or the growth of breweries in the US, there isn’t much focus on quantitative data; instead, this book is more concerned with the how rather than the how much, and where it shines most brightly is in explanatory graphics breaking down how and where the world’s booze is produced, and the etiquette and customs around them. I appreciated a clear explanation of beer terms like “gravity” and “international bittering units,” and found a useful reference in the chart summarizing the guidelines for different types of American whiskeys (my favorite, rye whiskey, must use a mash of at least 51 percent rye). I was particularly enamored with the diagrams illustrating the production process for each type of alcohol; clear and concise, they reminded me of the excellent diagrams within the excellent book of infographics about NYC infrastructure, The Works: Anatomy of a City.

This book isn’t flawless. Pop Chart Lab is a design house, one that does a bulk of its business selling posters and prints of things like a taxonomy of rap names, illustrations of all the birds of North America, and a massive, 5-foot-long chart of the many varieties of beer. But what works on a wall doesn’t always work on a page.

In some cases, this manifests as overly complicated network diagrams that lack any clear spatial orientation, resembling mazes or circuit boards, as is the case with their chart showing the genealogies of French grapes. More perversely, cocktail recipes are disassembled into complex circuits of ingredients that are inscrutable when sober and the end of the party when not. I know they can do better: a similar genealogy diagram for hops, 66 pages earlier, is nicely organized as a vertical tree, one whose orientation provides a clear place for the eye to start, and a clear instruction to read downwards.

More frequently though, these poster-style pieces veer towards abstract compositions with limited or no explanatory text — aesthetically appealing but, like Taste, not as useful as I wanted. Let’s go back to that map of the London Underground: imagine it, and then imagine it without any of the station names. You can still discern a pattern and order to the arrangement, but it’s impossible to use for real-life navigation.

Visual Guide to Drink

A Visual Guide to Drink has several pages dedicated to presenting the compositions of wines from the AOC regions within France’s major wine areas, the kind of material that in a conventional wine reference, you would find spread over many paragraphs of text. Here, it’s condensed into an attractive grid of wine bottles, each segmented into colored sections to represent the proportions of various grape types in each type of wine. This presentation makes it simple to see that some wines are blends of many grapes, while others are more homogenous, and it’s designed clearly for that broad informational purpose. But it’s difficult to use the chart to figure out the answers to any more complicated questions — like how much of a Pauillac is merlot, and how it compares compositionally to, say, an Haut-Médoc. This chart frustrated me when I wanted to learn more, but the explanatory labels and text I wanted have no place in its abstract design.

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Similarly, Pop Chart Lab’s maps of wine regions and brewery locations are far too spare in their references, showing only the basic contours of water and land and never any place names. So, if I wanted to know where those clusters of breweries around Portland are actually located, I have to find a real map and compare the two images side-by-side. This abstraction might be appealing for a design-minded beer aficionado who wants a bold, stylized map on her wall, but it’s inaccessible for outsiders or beginners. By the time I got to the map of Chile’s wine country, I was completely lost. (At least show me Santiago!) Still, these are relatively minor nits to pick on a book made up of a much more solid collection of hits.

Why does Drink succeed whileTaste struggles? Infographics are hard work, and harder still when you go it alone. Of course, individuals can create great single pieces – think of Snow or Minard for instance, and their maps of cholera and Napoleonic battles – but to pull off sustained and consistent work to fill a whole book of infographics, you need a seasoned team. That Times style guide for graphics I mentioned? It’s no book, but the collective practice of large multidisciplinary group that constantly debates among itself and refines its work until it is right. A good-sized group of six experienced designers and researchers worked on Drink, but this seems to be the first foray into the field of infographics for both the author and the illustrator of Taste. With neither personal experience nor seasoned guides on their side — instead of trying to emulate McCandless, they would’ve been better served by the instructional books of Edward Tufte and Alberto Cairo— it’s not surprising Rowe and Turner stumble so often.

What these examples prove is that when done right, an infographic displays perfect harmony between info and graphic.

How might they have succeeded? When it comes to data and information, it’s advantageous to drill deep on one or two topics — to use your charts to illustrate many facets of one idea — rather than trying to be an expansive diner-style menu of visualizations on all sorts of subjects. This approach worked well for A Visual Guide to Drink, giving its authors a clear and consistent outline for the book they had to write, instead of blank pages that needed to be filled. Another approach is to chart things that are, in fact, measurable — rather than interesting, if random, facts about avocados, imagine charts that focus instead on what countries that avocado in my hand likely comes from, how its surge in popularity has changed farming in California and Mexico, how a recall from a single contaminated farm can ripple across many states and products. Our food system is large and complex; where are the infographics to make it understandable?

Of course, after all this, it’s worth pointing out that infographics aren’t entirely new to the food world.  We interact with visually presented information on a daily basis — either because they are legally required (we all know what the food pyramid is and how to perform a Heimlich Maneuver), or because they’re extremely practical; that chart at the butcher showing the cuts of meat on a steer is an infographic too. What these tremendously successful examples prove is that when done right, an infographic displays perfect harmony between info and graphic: a good one is always going to be significantly more clear and accessible than an equivalent block of text, or an equivalent visual-only representation.

But none of this is to say that an infographic should stand alone. A Visual Guide to Drink is better than some wine references in some ways, but you still need other books if you want to go deep on the nuances of a particular grape, or the histories of various AOCs. Taste may tell you which countries are most enamored of instant ramen, but it won’t give you a deep look at the cultural and geographic reasons why. Even at their very, very best, infographics provide their user with just a starting point for understanding the world. To that end, these books, in differing degrees, succeed. But you’ll still need the rest of your library to support them; for better or for worse, neither one stands alone on the shelf. And that’s okay — they shouldn’t have to.

Jacob Harris is a software developer and former data journalist at the New York Times. His writing on data visualization has appeared in the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Source and NiemanLab.

Images from Taste: The Infographic Book copyright Aurum Press
Images from A Visual Guide to Food and Drink copyright Avery

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Originally posted 2016-02-14 06:36:42.

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