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Talk explores origins and uses of infographics

Gareth Cook ’91 encouraged readers to question potential bias behind infographics

Human perceptions of the world are dramatically changing, Gareth Cook ’91 argued in a lecture Wednesday night. The cause, he posited, is a blend of text and images with origins tracing back over 10,000 years: the infographic.

Cook’s talk, “Infographics: The Origins and Future of Visual Thinking,” took place in a packed MacMillan 115 and was sponsored by the Science Center as part of its Science Communication Series. A Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine journalist, Cook has written for the Boston Globe, and his work appears regularly in the New Yorker. He is also the editor of Scientific American’s neuroscience blog “Mind Matters” and the series editor of The Best American Infographics.

Cook began by discussing his original foray into the world of infographics. As a science writer for the Boston Globe, he struggled to explain esoteric scientific topics, Cook said, but “suddenly, with infographics, everyone would understand it.”

As technology advances, new problems arise, Cook said. “We live in an age of information overload.”

Infographics allow us to “make sense of overwhelming information,” he said. “Half of the brain is involved in processing visual information,” and infographics are a “new visual language.”

Cook presented examples of infographics throughout his lecture, including an 1861 map of the Union used by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, a palette of the five most common colors used by Claude Monet in 1903 and a modern portrait of New York City’s twitter traffic.

To explore the origins of infographics, Cook presented the audience with a picture of the first known map — a Paleolithic stone map from 14,000 years ago — which sparked the “idea that you can represent the whole world around you in one place,” Cook said.

Cook credited William Playfair, inventor of the bar chart and the pie chart, with having “greatly expanded the whole idea of mapmaking” by applying the coordinate system used in maps to new areas.

“What you see here is the moment that cartography transcended geography,” Cook said. “Playfair managed, almost by accident, to tap into an incredibly powerful machine — the human mind.”

Cook proceeded to demonstrate the different ways infographics “make sense of very complicated information.”

Though he said “the goal of most infographics is clarity,” Cook warned the audience to be wary of artists’ motivations.

“With the rise of great infographics, we’ve also seen the rise of terrible infographics,” Cook said, citing a “nightmarish” infographic of the Affordable Care Act that the law’s opponents created to distort the effects of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

“We need to learn how to be critical of infographics” and remind ourselves that “behind every infographic, there is an artist who has motivation and is making choices,” Cook said. The enormous effort put into creating these images is a “reminder of how powerful infographics have become,” he added.

Cook said he expects infographics to continue to expand in the future, adding he is hopeful for “a more integrated approach to storytelling” where infographics are used in tandem with other forms of media.

“Photography and video and infographics — they each have their own powers, and if you put them together thoughtfully, you can tell stories in new ways,” Cook said.

Jackie Ferrentina, a student from the Rhode Island School of Design, said she was struck by Cook’s argument that “blending infographics with other forms of media (may be) the future of journalism.” She added that she enjoyed learning about the history of infographics.

“It was really interesting to put a name to something I’ve been seeing for a while but wasn’t quite sure how to articulate,” said Alexander Podolsky ’17, adding that “as technology continues to develop, it’ll be interesting to see what infographics will be like in the future.”

“If there’s one thing I want you to remember,” Cook told the audience, it’s that everyone should be wary of taking infographics as a given truth. “We need to be critical of them. We need to think about what choices the person has made in putting them together, the same way as (we would) with a piece of writing.”


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