Navigating in the Age of Infographics

By Troy Hicks: Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English at Central Michigan University and focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology, and teacher education and professional development. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and he frequently conducts professional development workshops related to writing and technology. He blogs at Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, and he can be followed on Twitter @hickstro

Met Office Climate Data - Month by Month (January)

Flickr photo by blprnt_van shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In their book, Everything’s an Argument, Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters begin with the simple premise: “[O]ne Fact of contemporary life in the digital age: anyone, anywhere, with access to a smartphone, can mount an argument that can circle the globe in seconds” (5).

And, while the world we inhabit continues to take many sides on many issues, we also now have many new forms of media through which to present these arguments. And, yes, while some arguments can be shared through a Twitter message or a quick picture posted to Insta graph, one other form of argument that takes more time to compose, yet can be immediately understood, is the infographic.

Popularized most recently through the entertaining TED talks of Hans Rosling and his Gapminder project, infographics that once took a sophisticated knowledge of multiple programs in order to create can now be developed online with just a few clicks. Their popularity has only increased, according to Wikipedia, as “infographics are often shared between users of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.”

The first documented infographic was Charles Minard’s “Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813,” which skillfully outlined Napoleon’s march upon Russia, as well as his ultimate defeat. While many of us may not have the skills of Minard, more and more of us are now able to build infographics today with a number of digital writing tools including Piktochart, Infogram, and Easely.

We are always asking students to include details and examples in their work. Infographics can be powerful visual tools to be used as arguments for a number of reasons. But it isn’t all about going digital. As Master designer and scholar Edward Tufte notes,

I think there’s been – obviously, the digital world has opened up more possibilities with visualizations. But some of the most spectacular visualizations were done of all – in 1610 by Galileo, as he made these – made his remarkable discoveries. So visualization is timeless, and the principles for showing information – like nature’s laws – are timeless. So we can – I think I can learn more, a lot more sometimes, from 1610 and Galileo than I can learn from the last five years of looking at visualizations. (NPR, 1-18-13)

Thus, we want students to think about how visualization can lead to new ideas, furthering their own arguments with evidence. It can be powerful tools for expression, both personal and professional. Even though charts and graphs can sometimes be misleading — or, perhaps exactly because of this reason — we need to make sure that our students understand not only how to read charts, but also how to write them. The teaching of visual literacy has never been more important, in fact.

As this example from one of my CMU students majoring in education demonstrates, her personal passion to become a math teacher fits into a broader national agenda about the ways in which math education needs to empower girls.

Girls and Math

Infographic by Rachel Stelman

Here, Rachel Stelman uses data that she has found from national surveys as well as an interview that she has conducted with a CMU professor in order to paint a clear picture about the trends related to girls and the study of math.

Hers is just one of many ways in which the writer could compose in photographic to document the experience of women in mathematics and science. A quick search of Piktochart yielded another by Jillian Gaietto that includes much more detail and references. Clearly, infographics can work to augment or completely redefine the task of research and writing.

Visualising Your Thinking

flickr photo by mrkrndvs shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

As you chart your course through Digital Writing Month, scale up your digital writing chops, raise the bar, and tackle the task of creating an infographic. Make an infographic that is a visual representation of some data points of your life … whether it be at your educational institution, the activities of your typical day, or something interesting discovered elsewhere.

What would that look like in visual form?

We hope you will share out your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #digiwrimo hashtag; in the DiGiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DiGiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.