Information Visualization: Infographics
from a Linguistic Point of View
1. Visual Age1 and Infographics
“We live in an image-dominated age, and popular science abounds with visu-
als: eye-popping photographs, gorgeous graphics and slick information design.
Amidst all this eye candy, not much attention is paid to figures accompanying
articles in scientific journals and white papers.”2 Visualized information can be
any text complemented with a photo or graphics (preferably selected to match
the text) but may also take the form of “infographics”, especially in the posts of
news and popular science websites.
The paper deals with information visualization using infographics as an
example (more specifically it examines infographics from a linguistic point of
view) and it also touches on issues such as the big data phenomenon, compres-
sion methods, source criticism or the “reading” of images and texts.
The relationship between information visualization and linguistics can be ex-
amined from two different angles: the first deals with how and for what purpose
information visualization is used by linguistics, which is primarily concerned
with word-language; the second deals with how and from what aspects can info-
graphics integrating images and texts be described with the tools and method-
ology of linguistics.
To carry out this examination, first we have to clarify the notion of
1 As an administrator of several Facebook pages, my impression is that the most pop-
ular, most liked and most shared posts are the ones which integrate text with visual
content, like an image or video. Naturally, it may be misleading to measure popularity
by the number of Facebook “likes” (e.g. consider the notion “courtesy like” which
means pressing the “Like” button to maintain the relationship with the poster per-
son rather than to recommend the content posted), still, page view and user activity
statistics can be taken as an indicator of the community’s interest. Such information
supports in a quantifiable way that messages are viewed by more users if accompanied
2 Brandon Keim, “The Best Scientific Visualizations of 2013”, Wired, 25 December 2013.
100 Ágnes Veszelszki
2.1. The Definition of Infographics
Data visualization is considered a hot topic in information technology, technical and
natural sciences, as well as in political and economic decision-making. According to a
Hungarian online financial journal, the aim of visualizing information is to make cer-
tain information accessible for those who are interested in them but are not special-
izing in data analysis.3 Instead of having to make their way through complex queries
and several pages of query results, they can access charts, reports and diagrams which
visualize the most significant information even on a mobile device, in only a few
minutes. This saves a lot of time and work, because it would normally require days to
collect, clean and visualize a larger set of data manually. It is not by coincidence that
more and more service providers offer (free or paid) services to visualize data.4
Infographics may be used for economic or political purposes, for scientific or
popular scientific or for entertainment purposes. Infographics rarely fit on one
screen, the reader usually has to scroll (and sometimes zoom in) to read them in full.
Infographics is not a revolutionary invention. Consider the manufactured or teach-
er-made posters or boards on the classroom’s wall in school which merged images
(pictures, diagrams, charts, timelines) and texts to facilitate classroom work or the
learning/remembering of certain information. Infographics, however, add some new
features to such school material: on the one hand, they can be quickly and relatively
simply prepared electronically using software specifically designed for this purpose,
on the other hand, they can be easily shared with others through digital technology.
Infographics are more than just diagrams. Although they (can) contain diagrams,
they should be able to convey more complex and diverse information. According to
a website which deals with infographics: “Charts and graphs can communicate data,
infographics turn data into information.”5 They allow “people to see patterns in data
that they would otherwise have missed if they just stared at long tables of numbers”.6
3 “Elképesztő, mennyi adat létezik. Mire lehet felhasználni?” [“Incredible Amount of
Information. What Are They Good For?”], Portfolio.hu, 2 July 2013. Online: http://
4 For example: http://infogr.am, http://visual.ly (the latter also functions as a social
website designed to create and share infographics).
5 Cf. http://www.coolinfographics.com. The analyses are also available in book format:
Randy Krum, Cool Infographics: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and
Design, Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2013.
6 “Infographics: Winds of Change”, The Economist, July 6th, 2013, pp.73−74.
Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View 101
Infographics can not only show (as charts and graphs do), but they interpret data as
well (in their specific way), they help the user by processing (digesting) information.
2.2. Its Tools: The Relationship between Picture and Text
So what are the tools infographics use to turn data into informative visuals? First
of all, they merge verbal information with visual ones. According to the anal-
yses of infographics, visual information has to be more dominant than verbal
information in order to facilitate a rapid transfer of information. To this end, it
uses (meaningful, meaning-changing, emphasizing) colours against a coloured
background as well as a variety of fonts adjusted to the intended purpose. In
addition, important components are the diagrams7, percentage data, sometimes
tables, icons and logos, as well as images or photos (often funny ones or ones
intended to be funny). They aim to blend the informational and the aesthetic.
The website just mentioned8 provides analyses about many ready-made info-
graphics. It also contains the following critical and thought-provoking note on
the relationship of verbal and visual information: “There is a lot of information
in this design. … packing [too] much information into one infographic is a risk.
On one hand, all of the major information is included in one place. On the other
hand, an infographic this big with this much text will discourage many readers
that are looking for a fast and easy explanation. The overall design can be intimi-
dating to readers that are evaluating the amount of time they would need to invest
in understand the information before they start reading. Many will leave before
reading any of the infographic.” It is also this website which in another analysis
encourages infographic designers to replace textual information with visuals: “the
use of icons and logos for the different device brands helps to reduce the text”.
2.3. Big Data and Compression
As Helles and Bruhn Jensen put it, data “are widely understood as minimal units
of information about the world, waiting to be found and collected by scholars and
other analysts [… and] are made in a process involving multiple social agents –
communicators, service providers, communication researchers, commercial
stakeholders, government authorities, international regulators, and more.”9
7 Also in a three-dimensional network form or supplemented by animations, ibid., p.73.
8 Cf. note 5 above: http://www.coolinfographics.com.
9 Rasmus Helles and Klaus Bruhn Jensen, “Introduction to the Special Issue ‘Making
Data – Big Data and Beyond’”, First Monday, vol. 18, no. 10, October 7, 2013. Online:
102 Ágnes Veszelszki
As the popular saying goes: “big data will transform society”10. Naturally, simi-
larly to other generalizations, this remark is also exaggerating, still we cannot un-
derestimate the importance and social impact of big data. The notion “big data”,
which first appeared in a scientific study in 2003 but became widely used only in
200811, refers to the phenomenon that the volume of data out there will eventually
become so vast and complex that it will be impossible to process and receive it
through simple, conventional, manual data processing methods and applications.12
The expression information explosion refers to the thought-provoking (if not
alarming) phenomenon that every year humanity regenerates, that is doubles,
the volume of information generated until that year throughout its entire history.
As of 2012, every day 2.5 billion gigabytes of data were “created in a variety of
forms, such as social media posts, information gathered in sensors and medical
devices, videos and transaction records”.13
The big data phenomenon described above is one of the reasons why informa-
tion compression is necessary: the almost unprocessably and incomprehensibly big
and extensive information load can be more manageable if numerical and textual
information are visualized together. This leads to the establishment of a new field
of applied research, a sub-discipline: so-called data scientists deal with the storage,
processing, cleaning, filtering and visualization of the vast amount of available data.
“Mental processes invariably involve the component of imagery.”14 As Nyíri
put it, “everyday thinking and communication, as well as scientific theories, in-
volve more than just verbal language. They involve images, too. They involve,
indeed they fundamentally rely on, visualizations.”15 By the evolving of the tech-
nology of picture production and dissemination (first in print, then in digital
form), more and more pictures emerged in scientific publications.16 According
10 Tom Boellstorff, “Making Big Data, in Theory”, First Monday, vol. 18, no. 10, October
7, 2013. Online: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4869/3750.
12 For example the website http://www.worldometers.info provides real-time informa-
tion, among others, on the number of new books published in a year or the number
of newspapers circulated, mobile phones sold, e-mails and tweets sent on a day.
13 “What Is Big Data? Bringing big data to the enterprise”, IBM. Online: http://www.ibm.
14 Kristóf Nyíri, “Visualization and the Horizons of Scientific Explanation”, in András
Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), The Iconic Turn in Education (series V L-
, vol. 2), Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang, 2012, p.127.
15 Ibid., pp.149 f.
16 Kristóf Nyíri, “Bildbedeutung und Kommunikation”, in Kristóf Nyíri, Vernetztes Wis-
sen, Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2004, pp.131−156.
Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View 103
to Wolfgang Raible, information visualization gained ground in sciences in the
20th century because the primary forum for researchers to publish their results
shifted from books, which offered larger space for explanations, to journals which
required drastic curtailment of studies and thus made visualization increasingly
important.17 In addition to this, online forms of publications now enable authors
to insert audio and video content into their text through hyperlinks.18 Some of
these figures are also called a sort of scientific folk art19 or data art.20
Naturally, the compression and omission of information results in a loss in
accuracy to some extent: infographic designers thus have to be very careful with
omissions, and with being silent about certain information and emphasizing
others, as these methods can totally shift emphasis from one end to the other
(cf. “Values not visualized are perceived as being less important”21). This way,
information visualization naturally incorporates the risk of manipulation as well.
3. Using Infographics in Various Linguistic Movements
Linguistics and training courses on linguistics – except, for the time being, for certain
popular science websites – do not exploit the data compression and illustrative po-
tential of infographics to the extent exploited by economics, IT and science. However,
naturally, they use diagrams (in particular: statistical stylistics and certain grammat-
ical examinations using the methods of statistics) and figures (e.g. consider the met-
aphor theory of Lakoff−Johnson and the related field of cognitive linguistics which
illustrates, among others, prefix semantics through pictures depicting containers).
17 “Die Bedeutung der Visualisierungen ist seit dem 20. Jh. überdies dadurch gestiegen,
dass Publikationsraum in den wissenschaftlichen Zeitschriften knapp ist: Rückgrat
der Forschung in den Naturwissenschaften ist der Artikel, nicht das Buch. Dies hat
zu einer enormen Verkürzung der publizierten Texte in führenden Zeitschriften und
komplementär zu einer Zunahme der Visualisierungen geführt.” (Wolfgang Raible,
“Bildschriftlichkeit”, in Sybille Krämer – Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum – Rainer Totzke
[eds.], Schriftbildlichkeit: Wahrnehmbarkeit, Materialität und Operativität von Nota-
tionen, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2012, pp.201−217.)
18 More on this topic: Barry Smith, “Diagrams, Documents, and the Meshing of Plans”, in
András Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), How to Do Things with Pictures: Skill, Practice,
Performance (series V L, vol. 3), Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang, 2013, p.165–179.
19 Brandon Keim, op. cit.
20 Cf. “Infographics: Winds of Change” (see note 6 above). The expression originates
from Nathan Yau’s book on infographics, Data Points: Visualization That Means
Something, Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2013.
21 See http://www.coolinfographics.com.
104 Ágnes Veszelszki
Below are two examples to illustrate infographics dealing with linguistics.
Taking a closer look at the infographic presenting Chomsky and his followers
(Figure 1), you will be surprised to find that this is not an infographic but rath-
er a presentation of mainly verbal information compressed into a single image.
Let me quote here from one of the websites specializing in the analysis of info-
graphics: “Readers are skimming the infographic because they expect an info-
graphicto make the data fast and easy to understand. Usually they will skip the
text and look at the visuals first. This means that any values not visualized are
skipped when the readers are skimming.”22 So what does the reader remember
from the information presented about Chomsky’s school this way? This question
could be answered for example by conducting eye tracking tests.
22 See http://www.coolinfographics.com.
Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View 105
The other infographic chosen for illustration deals with a problem central
to psycholinguistics (a discipline lying midway between psychology and lin-
guistics), namely the relationship between language acquisition and the brain
(Figure 2), and contains many more images than the previous one, still the verbal
component remains dominant.
If linguistics wants to use this form of information visualization in a broad-
er scope, where, in which linguistic sub-discipline and how can infographics
be used? It can be used by psycholinguistics, mentioned above, to illustrate the
results of experiments, and by sociolinguistics and dialectology to display the
outcome of surveys conducted mainly in topics relating to social or regional va-
riety of a language, and the variety-specific use of a language. Further topics that
may be effectively illustrated with infographics including language genealogy,
the sources of linguistics or linguistic change (linguistic history), to mention
only a few.
106 Ágnes Veszelszki
No matter which one we choose, we have to emphasize the role of information
visualization played in education. Such infographics do not (necessarily) serve
the development of science and may not be expected to replace verbal publica-
tions, but they can be very successful in presenting results in a way that is in-
stantly comprehensible but is also suitable for deeper research; with other words,
they can be successful as educational material (particularly: when teaching an
age group which is accustomed to the depicted messages of digital communica-
tion and thus prefers visual information).
4. Linguistics on Infographics
Wolfgang Raible23 and Nyíri24 identify Jacques Bertin’s semiologic approach,25
Rudolf Arnheim’s book inspired by gestalt psychology,26 and the works of more
recent authors like Manfredo Massironi,27 EdwardR.Tufte28 or Keith Kenney,29
as the groundwork of any scientific research on image-text interrelations and
visualization. We have to mention the German term Schriftbildlichkeit30, which
emphasizes the Janus-face character of writing: the language (Sprachlichkeit)
and the image (Bildlichkeit) components are present in writing simultaneously,
their connection is neither hyper-, nor subordinated. The occurrence of the one
or other side shows an oscillating pattern.31
23 Wolfgang Raible, “Bildschriftlichkeit” (cf. note 17 above).
24 See also for further explanations on the connection of mental images and scientific vis-
u al iza tion: Kristóf Nyíri, “Visualization and the Horizons of Scientific Explanation”
(cf. note 14 above).
25 Jacques Bertin, Sémiologie graphique: Les diagrammes, les réseaux, les cartes, with
Marc Barbut etal., Paris: EHESS, 1967.
26 Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Berke-
ley: University of California Press, 1954.
27 Manfredo Massironi, The Psychology of Graphic Images: Seeing, Drawing, Communi-
cating, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2002.
28 Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Cheshire, CT:
Graphics Press, 1983.
29 Keith Kenney, Visual Communication Research Designs, NewYork: Routledge, 2009.
30 Sybille Krämer and Rainer Totzke, “Einleitung: Was bedeutet ‘Schriftbildlichkeit’?”, in
Krämer – Cancik-Kirschbaum – Totzke (eds.), Schriftbildlichkeit (cf. note 17 above),
31 See also the term “Kippfigur”, ambiguous image or reversible figure, ibid., pp.23 ff.
The most famous Kippfigur, which can illustrate the oscillation between two sides of
the same phenomenon, is the duck-rabbit face in Wittgenstein’s adaption. Cf. Ludwig
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Part II, sect. xi.
Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View 107
If we want to find out how linguistics may handle and analyze infographics be-
side the above-mentioned philosophic-psychological-semiologic approaches, first
we have to face the question whether infographics should be examined as text or
as a special form of text. This is logically followed by the question whether images
can be considered as texts and to what extent can the concept of text be extended.
According to the semiotic-textologic definition of multimedial text, as pro-
vided by JánosS.Petőfi and Zsuzsa Benkes,32 the concept of text may be and
should be extended to a great extent: “As the signifier of the text as a complex
sign comprises elements forming part of several media (in addition to verbal el-
ements, for example illustrations, diagrams etc.), we deem it proper to call a text
every complex sign which has either a verbal (unimodal) signifier or a multi-
modal signifier which also contains a verbal component.”33 This type of signs (as
the examination follows a linguistic-semiotic approach) is termed by Petőfi and
Benkes as “‘verbal component + image/diagram…’ type complex sign” because,
according to their justification, “this term does not assign priority to either com-
ponent of the sign (not like the term ‘illustrated text’ which evidently places ‘text’
into a dominant position within the complex sign it refers to.)”34 The definition
provided by Petőfi and Benkes primarily relates to image-text relationships.35 On
the basis of this definition, the term “multimodal text” can be appropriately used
as an umbrella term for infographics.
In the context of the internet and the digital world, the equivalent of the term
multimodal text would be hypertext (coined by the sociologist and philosopher
Theodor Nelson36). A hypertext is a non-sequential (multimodal) text whose
corpus is made up of complexly interlinked written or visual content, making it
impossible to print out.37 In the definition of hypertext, János Petőfi emphasizes
32 JánosS.Petőfi and Zsuzsa Benkes, A multimediális szövegek megközelítései [Approach-
es to multimodal texts], Pécs: Iskolakultúra, 2002.
33 Ibid., p.13.
34 Ibid., p.15, cf. also p.17.
35 It may be appropriate later on to extend the linguistic-semiotic examination of im-
age-text conglomerates to dynamic relationships as well, e.g. to Prezi-type presenta-
tions containing videos or animations.
36 Theodor Holm Nelson, Literary Machines: The report on, and of, Project Xanadu
concerning word processing, electronic publishing, hypertext, thinkertoys, tomorrow’s
intellectual revolution, and certain other topics including knowledge, education and
freedom, Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press, 1981.
37 Wolfgang Frindte, “Dialoge in Netzstrukturen: Medienphilosophisches“, in Wolfgang
Frindte and Thomas Köhler (eds.), Kommunikation im Internet, Frankfurt/M.: Peter
Lang, 1999, pp.23–50.
108 Ágnes Veszelszki
the aspect of non-linear organization: “the text is structured in a way that its
parts, which are separated from each other for some reason, are linked together
through relationships with ‘non-linear organization’”.38 Therefore, hypertext is
a typically digital text with a network-like structure in which the relationships
between the individual elements are created by hyperlinks making it non-linear.
This type of text through its hyper-references offers an option to and expects in-
teractivity from the reader. Objects linked to each other and to the text through
hyperlinks, the hubs, that is the information units themselves can be texts, im-
ages and videos. These are interlinked by electronic references, i.e. links, which
make up the non-linear network-like structure.39
Although the characteristics of infographics, as they lack internal hyperlinks,
cannot be equated with those of hypertexts, they both share the characteristics
of non-linear organization and tight image-text relationship. The interaction of
image and text in a multimedial context changes language into an image-text
conglomerate in which they contextualize and clarify each other.40 Images can
be interpreted independently from the cultural context or without knowing the
language, and they can depict complex processes in a simplified way.41
According to certain representatives of cultural pessimism, breaking down
texts into informative chunks and filling up them with images/icons will eventu-
ally make online texts lose their textual character, and what was formerly a text
will fade to mere letter-icons and comprehensive reading will become nothing
more than watching.42 The perception and processing of infographics requires
a special type of reading technique: in addition to understanding linear texts,
the interpretation of non-linear images is also needed for full comprehension.
As opposed to the linearly decoded, conventionalized symbols of verbal lan-
guage, the decoding process of visual language is quick and simple. Images are
38 János S. Petőfi, “A hipertextuális irodalom a perszonal computer elterjedt alkal-
mazásának korszakában” [The hypertextual literature in the age of the personal com-
puter], 1995. Online: http://www.jgytf.u-szeged.hu/~vass/szemm082.htm.
39 Frindte, op. cit., p.44.
40 Ulrich Schmitz, “Text-Bild-Metamorphosen in Medien um 2000”, in Ulrich Schmitz
and Horst Wenzel (eds.), Wissen und neue Medien: Bilder und Zeichen von 800 bis
2000, Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 2003, pp.241–263, esp. p.244.
41 Christa Maar, “Iconic worlds: Bilderwelten nach dem iconic turn”, in Christa Maar
and Hubert Burda (eds.), Iconic worlds: Neue Bilderwelten und Wissensräume, Köln:
DuMont, 2006, pp.11–14.
42 For a collection see Jens Runkehl, “Text-Bild-Konstellationen”, in Torsten Siever, Peter
Schlobinski and Jens Runkehl (eds.), Websprache.net: Sprache und Kommunikation im
Internet, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp.202–218, esp. pp.206 f.
Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View 109
not controlled by consciousness: they avoid the mind and using their suggestive
power they influence our thoughts and emotions.43 Psychological examinations44
have shown that texts and images are processed through so-called saccades, that
is quick movements, and fixation, that is maintaining the gaze in a constant di-
rection. When reading texts we can take in 10–12 signs in a saccade, while we can
take in almost all main parts of an image in no more than a few saccades (almost
at once). The conventional linearity of books is suspended for the reader, “the
comprehension process of the text is never permanently finished”.45
5. Source Management. Big Data – Less Data
Although most infographics indicate its sources and start points (e.g. as a col-
lection of URLs in small print at the bottom of the image), however, it is usually
impossible to track back the source of information (and the reliability of such
source). For this reason, repeatability and verifiability, source criticism, the reli-
ability of data, and thus the risk of manipulation and methods to avoid it remain
salient issues in this field.
Furthermore, the following questions are still waiting to be answered: Can
an infographic be used as a source for further work? To what extent can big
data be compressed? When big data becomes less data, will that still be the same
43 Luca Giulani, “Macht und Ohnmacht der Bilder: Eine frisch gewaschene Schürze und
die gemordeten Mamelucken”, in Maar and Burda (eds.), Iconic worlds, pp.185–204,
44 Runkehl, op. cit.
45 András Karácsony, “Individualitás a nomádok földjén: Pillanatképek” [Individuality
in the Land of the Nomads], in Kristóf Nyíri (ed.), Mobilközösség – mobilmegismerés:
Tanulmányok [Mobile communities – mobile cognition: Essays], Budapest: MTA
Filozófiai Kutatóintézete, 2002, p.135.