Navigation – Plan du site

Infographics between figures and figurative language

A semiotic investigation of data visualization
L’infographie entre les figures et le langage figuratif
Giacomo Festi


L’article vise à interroger la relevance de l’infographie pour la recherche sémiotique, en particulier pour ce qui concerne la perception et la cognition. Après une reconstruction théorique du débat qui anime les professionnels du design graphique, à travers une réinterprétation de la contribution classique de Tufte (1983) sur la visualisation des données, l’essai explore trois différents cas d’infographie guidé par trois différentes problématiques et utilisant un corpus qui se réfère surtout à La Lettura et à Wired, deux hebdomadaires italiens. Le premier cas regarde la relation narrative et argumentative entre le paratexte verbal et la visualisation des données dans l’infographie ; on y montre le rôle manipulatoire de la distribution des donnés à l’intérieur d’une production infographique unique, analysée en profondeur. La deuxième question concerne les stratégies de visualisation et leur connexion avec les différentes opérations cognitives, comme l’individuation, la comparaison, la corrélation et l’exploration ; on parvient alors à une forme de schématisation qui utilise la tension entre une saillance perceptive et l’extension de l’activité cognitive. La dernière interrogation concerne une tendance infographique : la réintroduction du figuratif dans les visualisations ; le traitement du niveau figuratif affecte ici le ton de l’image, avec des exemples de dramatisation, poétisation, pédagogisation ou bien ironie. Grâce à dimension figurative, l’affection, après la perception et la cognition, est rendue à nouveau présent à l’intérieur d’un langage typiquement froid.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1. The semiotic questions about infographics

  • 1 For a theoretical proposition and a reconstruction of the debate, see for instance Basso Fossali (2 (...)
  • 2 Bordron devoted many contributions to this topic. See for instance Bordron (2002). On the relations (...)

1The shorter and simplest definition of infographic is that it is “a visual representation of information or data” (Oxford Dictionary), underlying a transformation of a kind of language (which can be a verbal one for information or a mathematical one for data) into a visual one. The semiotic translation into a representation, i.e. a full image, opens the question of the contribution of visual perception and furtherly cognition to the reading and interpretation of such a new image. This is not the place to discuss the complex and long dialogue between semiotics and theories of perception and cognition, giving the discipline occasion to fully valorize the semiotic dimension of perception1 or its analogies with language2.

  • 3 See Bordron (2014).
  • 4 See Dondero & Fontanille (2012) for a discussion of the tension between the indexical and the iconi (...)
  • 5 See Cairo (2013, ch. 1) for a personal account of this aspect.

2Instead this contribution is aimed at shedding some light on the relationship between the immanent textual properties of the infographic and the perceptual and cognitive interaction with the viewer. Here infographic is considered as a playground for specific operations whose possibilities strictly depend on the visual configurations of the infographic itself. As a mold, data distribution inside a visualization prepares different paths both for perception and cognition. That being said, the perceptual interest of an infographic is a debatable issue, since it can be considered, following Bordron3, a writing-image: such image should be “read” more than “seen”, because of the rules of composition and the presence of a key that guides the reading itself. Highly codified, following the fashionable graphic solution of the moment, the perceptual relevance of infographic is also apparently mined by another feature, arbitrariness, which distinguishes them from other scientific images that are first and foremost motivated by the mode of production of a specific device, causing some traces to be maintained in the final picture4. The arbitrariness of infographics, on the contrary, is quite a general and diffusive feature: the source information or data is arbitrarily chosen5, the kind of graphic structure and the specific visual solution, the layout for the presentation, are further steps of indefinite possibilities. The recursive freedom of both selection and composition, which is the basis of any infographic, questions the semiotic interest of this genre of communication.

3In this sense, it is exactly the use of infographics inside the media as a specific cultural object, regarding the way it participates in a movement of perceptual scrutiny and cognitive exploration, to call for a semiotic contribution. Our research is mainly driven by three questions: i) how does infographics reconfigure the specific tension between perception and cognition, i.e. between the recognition of emerging visual patterns and the projection of a reading grid? ii) Which role do the paratextual verbal elements assume in orienting narrative or argumentative relationships with the visual part? iii) How does the recent transformations of infographics in term of figurative possibilities impact on the meaning and the tone of a given visualization?

4From a methodological point of view, we consider cognition as a form of interpretative doing, the cognitive activity being a practice that qualifies the interaction between the reader/observer and, in our case, the infographics. Conceiving cognition as a practice means switching from a classic textual observation (looking at how infographics are configured) to a problem of descendent integration of a practice within a text. The epistemological reference taken here is the work of Jacques Fontanille (2008), who proposed, following a suggestion of Benveniste, a model of different and layered semiotic-objects. A cultural object like an infographic can be fictionally isolated as a pure text or reconsidered inside a practical scene, where the interaction with its interpreter becomes relevant. The point is that the inaccessible interaction is somehow tracked in the visual organization itself (at the enunciative level), being the support for different cognitive activities. Among them we can distinguish between the individuation of the single piece of information (accessibility and extraction), the comparison, that involves a confrontation between different data on a homogeneous semantic background (the bar chart is the paradigmatic tool supporting this operation) and the correlation, a relationship between heterogeneous data, generating different interpretative outputs, for instance, independency, co-variation, dependency, causal connection. The dispersion chart, linking at least two semantic dimensions, is an example of this possibility. Blending together these different cognitive operations is part of a more general form of exploration in the relationship between an infographic environment and its observer. Nonetheless, even before the extraction of data, an image arrives to the reader with its plastic features, sometimes displaying identifiable patterns like a curve, a peak, a concentration, a sudden variation in data density, etc. These eventual attractors activate a perceptual dynamics that can be imagined as identification. The perceptual intensity of an imposing shape asks for an interpretation, functioning as a device of problematization. How do identification, individuation, comparison, correlation and exploration co-exist and find a translation inside an infographic? Do we have canonical syntaxes of distribution of these diverse activities? Are they specifying the many types of infographics as a relevant feature? These other questions are present in our initial exploration of an open corpus of infographics, collected over time, mainly from La Lettura, a weekly magazine of the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, and from the magazine Wired.

5To approach the world of infographic, it is worth noting that the methodological oscillation inside the semiotic structuralist tradition between texts and practices finds an analogous movement in the reflection promoted by the graphic designers themselves, who are still the main protagonists of the conceptualization of infographics. Not surprisingly, the professionals involved in the design process of this kind of visualizations started debating about their use, their meanings, the values they should exemplify.

  • 6 See for instance Waralak (2013). It could be argued that the classic semiotic reference book about (...)

6Historically, the cult reference book of graphic newsrooms, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte (1983), witnessed a textual approach oriented or focused on the practice of creation of a data visualization. Tufte was stressing the question of how the activity of the designer was or not aware of the original data complexity, with the explicit aim of respecting or emphasizing that complexity through specific strategies of visualization. He finally proposed an esthetic approach interlocked with an ethical dimension, having essentiality as the leading value that could easily be adapted to esthetical (minimalism) or ethical (respect) issues. Tufte also sketched a typology of data display, using some empirical criteria or a kind of phenomenological evidence, strictly dependent on textual properties. That typology has been reformulated several times6 but not deeply altered in its logic. He identified four main families of infographics following the type of data they treated and worked on their figurative degree.

  • 7 Note how this general idea is anticipating the augmented reality visualizations.

7Data maps, to begin with, adopt a spatial distribution that follows the iconic level of a geographical actual space, no matter how stylized it can appear. Data maps, then, overlap a figurative layer with a data layer, the latter being motivated by the former7. Temporal series represent a second common type of infographics, substituting space with time, but always having that figurative variable as an establishing guide, typically in a linear form. A third, less diffused solution is represented by space-temporal distributions, the most figurative, therefore, maintaining an anchor to a stylized figurative plan. It is only with a fourth type of charts, purely “relational”, i.e. more abstract, so any figurative reference is abandoned, moving toward a solution that is closer to the Peirce concept of diagram, if considered as an icon and a pattern of relationships.

8These distinctions, in any case, are clearly disconnected from the kind of perceptual or cognitive activity they support, that can be diverse. Nonetheless, Tufte as he says, was aware of the different purposes of the visualizations: description, exploration, tabulation or decoration. He didn’t devote an in-depth look on these further articulations, and considered them as secondary and marginal. On the contrary, it seems that the genre of discourse where the infographic is appearing and the purposes (another genre feature) are governing different cognitive processes.

9Indeed, since then, another point of view appeared, fully addressing the perspective of the interpreter of an infographic, imagining different solutions for different targets and recovering one of the constitutive traits of a design oriented approach, the care of the qualitative interaction with the user. A cognitive ergonomic approach is witnessed in the recent work of Alberto Cairo (2013), an influential protagonist of the contemporary scene of infographics.

10In the middle, a turning point has been the debate about the “chartjunk”, expression introduced by Tufte in an act of denunciation of the adornment drift in infographics. He mapped and discussed all the forms of distortion of the entry data in the visualization process (anticipating in some observations the contemporary software studies). Tufte demonstrated how the computer was influencing the choice of some graphic element, producing ugly visual compositions, like the typical vibrated filling of some area, made possible by software but destabilizing the actual perception of the visual data. The debate became acute with Nigel Holmes, author of a famous infographic8 evoked by Tufte (1990) as an emblem of chartjunk, full of “superfluous embellishments”. This controversy engendered research programs about the actual cognitive relationships between observers and infographics9. Understandability and memorability, for instance, seems not to be compromised, even favored, by some cases of chartjunk10. It is clear, in any case, that the graphic designers started to integrate, in their own reflection concerning the creative activity, two levels of mediation, the profile of the reader and the discursive frame in which it appears, the magazine style in term of visual identity and the consequent reading contract.

11Back to Tufte, he was actually able to offer some relevant reflection concerning the cognitive processing of a data visualization. In his definition of visual display of quantitative information, he said that the graphic appearance should encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data and “reveal the data” at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the finest structure. He was foreshadowing a canonical syntax made by the identification of general icons, zooming and selecting parts of data, in order to individuate the data, their extraction to further start comparison and correlation. Each good infographic, for Tufte, should have at least these two layers, a global configuration immediately accessible, with an emergent feature, and an analytical organization that makes it possible to arrive at the single data, supporting different forms of confrontation. This duplicity can be reinterpreted as a constitutive tension between emergent plastic structures, supporting a perceptual grasping of an image, and cognitive operations on data. This semantic tension will find a place in our path of analytical investigation of actual infographics.

2. Three semiotic analytical crossings

12After this theoretical introduction, we would like to first present and discuss two main transformations of infographic today and then delve into the question around the presence of a figurative dimension, in its relationship to the cognitive activity as well as to the tone of the final graphic solution.

13It is trivial nowadays to point out the growing relevance of infographics in the contemporary mediascape. An enunciative crucial role, reinforced by the above mentioned arbitrariness, is assigned to the graphic designer, more and more celebrated in his/her creative role. One of the many evidences of this authorial promotion is the fact that since 2013 La Repubblica, an important Italian newspaper, started to sign the author of the infographic, that before was never present. Historically, infographics were locally used, in journalism and magazine publishing, inside a framing and dominating verbal text, eventually punctuating the flow of the discourse thanks to the silent work of internal graphic professionals. The recognized importance of infographics made them explore new modalities of presence, acquiring more space and autonomy at least in two different ways. From one side, it is possible to find an entire article composed of different kinds of infographics, having a remarkable extension (for instance we could talk about an “infographic investigation”); on the other side, one single piece is made by one complex infographic standing alone (the piece “is” the infographics).

2.1. The argumentative power of infographics

  • 11 See for instance Krum (2013, ch. 1, “The art of storytelling”).

14As far as the first process is concerned, the infographic investigation, only one case will be considered, analyzing the role assigned to a narrative dimension, as related to the syntagmatic distribution of different infographics. If graphic designers started to speak explicitly about an infographic storytelling11, the real point would be the development of an argumentative dimension in the path of the infographics.

  • 12 The infographic is discussed in Cairo (2013, pp. 45-49).

15The example we would like to discuss concerns an infographic investigation devoted to the rapid growth of Brazilian jail population, related to governmental policies12 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Infographics about jail population in Brazil.

Época, 650, by Alberto Cairo and Humberto Maia, 2010.

16The double page is divided into three steps that constitute a thematic progression, each of them accompanied by one or two infographics. It is in the relationship between the headline and the visualizations that the role of the infographic and the way it participates to a practice of reading can be scrutinized. The first step focuses on Brazil’s fifth position among the world countries with the biggest augmentation of jail population between 1997 and 2007. The two associated infographics are separated on a geographical basis: the first displays Brazil as fifth in the world, the second shows Brazil as first in its region, South America, using the color red to emphasize the country’s data. Both infographics confirm and re-state the headline, assuming the role of evidence or proof inside a wider set of data. From a cognitive point of view, comparison among countries is made possible, even if the emphatic use of the red suggests only the extraction of the relevant information, graspable at first sight.

17The second step confirms the trend between 2007 and 2010, showing the data of each Brazilian region, hence enhancing comparison and giving more freedom to the reader who can personalize the search. It is only with the third step that correlation appears, combining the growth in jail population with the jail space made available in the same temporal lapse. The point here is that jail space more clearly depends on governmental policies, showing the critical situation in many regions where the strong augmentation of prisoners is coupled with a diminishing individual space in jails. This third hybrid infographic, introducing correlation, permits the connection between state of affair and public policy, linking heterogenous semantic spaces and opening forms of critical argumentation. The infographics per se do not display any explicit denunciation of this condition, but the sensitization is switched into a potential political point of view. The dominant comparison of the first two steps (supporting sensitization) is transformed into a dominant correlation in the third step, where cause-effect relationships are introduced. Responsibility and strategic decisions are now at stake: the same visual device (headline + infographic) supports very different operations in the manipulative relationship with the reader. The visualization is always a textual configuration that “causes someone to do something”, guided by the interaction with the headline toward a stronger engagement inside the problematic scenario of jail living conditions.

2.2. Blending charts

  • 13 Among the most popular applications with pre-formatted infographics and a substantial connection wi (...)
  • 14 On the recovery of the Luhmann idea of environment as expression of factors of indetermination and (...)

18If we move on to the second main type of general transformation, the development of the infographic page, it can be pointed out that it is characterized by an explosion of hybridizations between different forms of diagrams and charts, as a kind of challenge to create each time something unique, complex and original, even if not strongly motivated. It’s also the way graphic designers reaffirm their own role, resisting to the growing presence of infographic templates that shorten the mediation between a data set and its visual displaying13. In this case, it is helpful to introduce the idea of an image-environment, being a playground were exploring (more or less) unexpected relationships14. This kind of composition resembles more the genre of graphic illustration, first of all for its character of absolutization: it cannot be integrated with another infographic. To quote Lev Manovich (2010), infographic pages are not really modular, as is our culture: they cannot be decomposed or split into exportable parts, so that they don’t nourish any kind of bricolage activity by the users. The further experimental aspect of this new infographics is quite evident looking at the different solutions in the corpus of La Lettura infographics, which largely exemplify this second movement. The section Maps of Knowledge (Visual Data) is the place officially used to invite each week a team or a single graphic designer to reinterpret a given topic with a devoted infographic. In general, the Tufte esthetics can be recognized at work as dominant, values being minimalism, precision, essentiality of abstract forms.

19The two examples we are going to discuss are both created by Accurat and the team guided by Giorgia Lupi, questioning exactly the way the adopted solutions can impact on the practice of interpretation of the observer. The two cases are good examples of two different strategies of hybridization, that can use either the fictional depth of the image (coherent with the major authoring software treating images), i.e. the layered structure of images, or the paratactic alignment.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

“Brain drain”

La Lettura, by Accurat, 2013.

20The first case visualizes the phenomenon of the brain drain15, with an infographic that can recall, at a first impression, an abstract painting, having some Mondrian flavor in the primary colours as well as in the abstract elementary shapes (Fig. 2). Each feature of the composition, like the geometrical shapes (bars and circular areas), the lengths, the superficial extension, the colours, the positions into the space, is used as a support for a different kind of data. This option seems to saturate every visible element in term of data codification, with an apparent high degree of motivation between the data sets (contents) and the visible properties (expressions). Nevertheless, visually speaking, each element that one can isolate ends up to be largely autonomous from the others. Indeed, no less than 10 different variables in the bidimensional space of the page can be counted: among them, the country GNP, the rate of unemployment, the rate of feminine participation in the workplace, the number of universities being rated in the first 250 of the international ranking, the percent of the emigrant researchers, etc. From this point of view, this infographic is an emblematic case of saturation and integration of heterogeneous data into a hybrid outcome that fuses together different visual tools: a dispersion chart (two embedding axes), a bar chart (colored bars for different data), an area chart, metric segments and finally connecting arrows. That being said, the layering of the representation devices constitutes an obstacle to the comparison and finally makes quite hard, if not impossible, the further correlation of variables. What is clearly missing is an emerging visual icon that could orient the interpretation. Before reading the explaining caption, starting from an overall plastic scan, one can mainly notice the opposition between USA and Switzerland, in term of arrow density and circular area (but this confrontation is partially illusionary, since both are in the same zone of the dispersion chart: the very opposite of USA is more India if you consider the majority of the present levels of data).

21The comparison is made difficult because the bars of the different countries are too distant, on different visual backgrounds, and the segments cannot be precisely measured even if they are created as metric. A digital quantity becomes more analogical in the visual conversion. One can only verify, eventually, if a feature is bigger or lower than another one. Comparison being widely compromised, the main problem is nevertheless that the correlation is blocked, since one has too many variables to memorize and furthermore a leading hypothesis guiding the viewer’s observation is clearly missing. On the contrary, quite like a paradox, the verbal short article put under the infographic, written by an expert on the topic that comments the social phenomenon, emphasizes the fact that the brain drain also depends on juridical, cultural and political factors, carefully avoided in the visualization. For instance, the socio-political evidence that embassies of northern countries sometime block the visa of students coming from east-European countries, suspecting a possible excuse for prostitution activities, is absent in the graph. We can then say that the article works as a counterargument if related to the infographic. In this case, finally, we register a combination of a low degree of emergence of a plastic pattern and a short extension regarding the possibility of data exploration, since comparison is made difficult and correlation compromised.

22A second different case is an infographic16 that follows a logic of juxtaposition (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

“Nobel prizes”

La Lettura, by Accurat, 2012.

23The basis is a timeline (the single years for each Nobel prize), overlapped with a bar chart (the age of the winner) and a flux diagram (the correlation with the most important US universities), three different solutions for different kinds of data. This outcome permits to individuate and extract the single and unique data (e.g. the age of a Nobel prize), to compare the 6 different awards, to correlate each type of prize with a distribution of the level of education and finally to correlate this information with some of the most important universities from which the Nobel prizes graduated. The infographic, then, combines all the major forms of cognitive activity, fundamentally giving the initiative to the reader, free to play with data. The exploratory attitude seems to be dominant, supporting all other forms of cognitive activity. Some major resulting features are then quite easily accessible, once the picture starts to be read, like the fact that less literature Nobels have Ph.D.’s or that none of these famous American universities graduated a future Nobel Prize for literature. The wide operability of the infographics seems to be the crucial feature to introduce our idea of an infographic-environment. Exactly as in the previous case, nevertheless, the perceptual valence thematizing the emergency of a plastic pattern is low, since at a first look we do not see intense zones of attraction for us to gaze at, that could launch exploration at whatever point.

24It is now possible to propose a first semantic mapping of the infographics, not focused on the number of different data they manage, but related to the practice of interpretation, both from a perceptual point of view and from a cognitive one. These two aspects depend on textual constraints, the infographic preparing, as a negative mold, the possible paths of interaction, each time resolving this inevitable tension between the more or less evident emersion of perceptual patterns and the extension of cognitive operations made possible. In Fig. 4, the two infographics here considered are representing two out of four main positions, the others being easily imaginable. The infographic regarding brain drain can be labelled as opaque, since the absence of perceptual salience is not counterbalanced by the possibility of an interpretative construction, each eventual cognitive path being stopped in term of correlation. The infographic concerning the Nobel prizes is instead explorative, in the sense that can be run in different directions, through different paths, granting some form of interpretative outcome. The exhaustive infographic (see for instance the “field of commemoration” infographic below as example) combines emergent visual patterns with an extended possibility of data exploration. We finally imagine a conflict between an emergent perceptual feature that can hardly be interpreted and resolved, remaining an allotopy and engendering an interrogation in the interpreter.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Mapping the infographics in relationship to the practice of interpretation

2.3. The figurative treatment and the appearance of a tone

  • 17 See Bastide (2001, Ch. 6).

25Technological innovation in software impacted on infographic designing, at least permitting today to render easier the reintroduction of some part of figurative language inside the generally abstract visualizations of data. Beyond the semi-symbolic codes already explored by Françoise Bastide in her seminal work about the iconography of science17, a new possible re-motivation of expressive choices in infographics depends on the investment on the figurative level. That choice seems to inflect the overall tone of the infographic, between a ludic play or a pedagogical purpose, as a sort of commentary introduced by the subject of enunciation. Beside cognition, an affective dimension is hence activated, exemplifying a specific semiotic passionate treatment of the information. Since a chart is always a projection of a fictional third person, an objectification (shifting-out), the figurative dimension can therefore establish a degree of participation or involvement of the subject of enunciation in its relationship to the text.

26Sometimes the figurative plan has a thematic stereotypical or hypercodified relationship with the data, as in the first case from Wired (Fig. 5)18. The illustrative character of the infographic, catching the attention of the reader, always poses the problem of its degree of motivation and of its iconographic relationship with the treated topic.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

“Italian exit resembles an ant”

Andrea Manzati, Wired, n. 66, October 2014.

27As shown, the ants, the ant’s nest and the spikes are overlapping two sets of data, a time-series for the spikes and a paradigmatic distribution of trade area for the ant’s nests, with the single circles showing the economic dimensionality of the enterprise on the market (the “exit” measures the selling of national digital companies in foreign countries). Since the content of the article argues that Italian enterprises are acting like ants, the metaphor is literally transposed in the picture, in a redundant proposition. The consequence of the molar (coded) choice is that the connections among the circles, the black segments, have no meanings in term of data, nor the ground and the appearance of the spikes that are distributed on a different background of data. There is no effective dialogue between the two layers of the infographic: they are just juxtaposed. The figurative contribution is not only scarcely motivated, but it engenders ambiguity about the relevancy of the graphic elements, like the segments connecting the circles, which seem to carry information. This example is interesting if compared with three other very different cases of stronger motivation between figurative choices and data contents.

28The first is taken again from Wired19, and is part of a reportage about the festival Comic-con, where the cosplayers are the main protagonists. Apparently, it is a ludic and skillful creation that uses some figurative traits of the referenced fictional characters to create a pie-chart or a spider one, both able to recall the character itself to whom the infographic is devoted. The percent distribution of the cosplayers choosing the different PacMan characters (PacMan, Pinky, Blinky, Inky, Clyde) re-creates the shape of the main yellow character of PacMan itself. This vertigo effect of auto-similarity not only motivates totally useless information, but it also shows how the subject of enunciation is inside the same imitative logic of the cosplayers, as if the author were adopting that kind of attitude. The treatment of the data is then a sophisticated divertissement that flirts with the form of life of the cosplayer.

29The second case is about an infographic used in advertisement, more specifically in a campaign of sensitization about social inequalities in different countries for the Grande Reportagem Magazine20. In this case, the recognizable aspect of the Brazilian flag, composed by four basic colours embedded in elementary surface elements like a rhomb and a circle, is reinterpreted as if it were an actual infographic, visualizing the distribution of incomes in the population, making clear the gap and the inequality between the poor, i.e. the majority of the population, represented in the green background, and the small percentage of the wealthiest who are represented by the few stars at the center. This kind of remotivation in data visualization becomes a form of dramatization, since a statistic distribution becomes the image itself of the identity of the country, synthetized in the flag as a metonymical prosthesis of the idem identity of the place. The identity of the nation is deeply involved, hence the combination of perceptual intensification in the rhetorical visual solution on one side (looking at the same, the flag, in a different and new way) and the engagement of the country identity on the other. The cooperation between relevancy for the identity in term of narrative dimension and perceptual intensification due to the contribution of the visual strategy, is one of the main features of the strategy of dramatization.

30A third and final case plays, on the contrary, with a lyrical treatment, a kind of poeticization of data concerning the deaths in wars during the 19th century, again overlapping many layers of data (Fig. 6)21.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

“Fields of commemoration”

The Infographic History of the World, by Valentina D’Efilippo (2013), republished in Cook (2014, pp. 86-87).

  • 22 For a semantic analysis of delicateness related to flowers, see Floch (1995, ch. 3).

31On a timeline following the horizontal axis the stems grow from the date of beginning of the war and end at the date it finished. The puppy flower at the top is relevant in its dimensionality (it is proportional to the number of deaths) and the chromatic variations are meant to indicate the regions that were involved in the war. Why can we speak about a lyrical treatment? The poppy flower is a ritual element of commemoration in many countries and the infographics seems a flower field from a figurative point of view. Each element composing the stylized iconicity of the poppy flower is made relevant, nothing is unmotivated: shape, color, dimensionality, position in space. The lightness of the stem and the curvature it presents, let us imagine the action of the wind, emphasizing the fragility and the delicate aspect of the flower22. The composition then assumes the same contemplative passion of commemoration as deeply structuring the act of enunciation, finding the right affective distance to speak about a sensible topic like deaths in wars. The recovery of a single piece of information in the visualization requires time, the same temporal extension that is activated in the passionate contemplation of commemoration. It’s about a true transfiguration of the data: from cold information, the crude figure, to an image full of potential affectivity.

32An overall mapping of this figurative treatment of data is now possible, the first axis to retain being the relationship between the figurative aspect and the affective dimension, since the visual selection can activate a subject of affection, more or less present, also indicating its own degree of involvement and implication in the visualized topic. The figurative choice in relationship to the topic is what is differentiating in the second axis. The visual elements can be direct iconographic emanations of the theme: the Brazilian flag and the PacMan character are both strongly related to the visualization and they are used as if they were exercising a figurative pressure on manifestation. They reappear inside the infographic, reconfigured by the overlapping of abstract data. On the other side, the figurative choice can move toward another semantic universe, interpreting the phenomenon through the proposed choice. The poppy flowers and the ants have no direct connections with the topic, transposing it into an interpretative scenario. In the resulting differential positioning, the tone of the infographic appears as a relevant qualifying feature.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Figurative treatment in infographics and the emersion of the tone

3. Conclusions

33In this contribution, infographic became a multifaceted object touching different semiotic questions. We first explored the way the interaction between the verbal text and the data visualization impacts on the cognitive activity of the reader in terms of manipulation, causing it to do specific operations like comparisons or correlations. In a second phase, we sketched a typology of infographics starting from a tension between two valences, the perceptual emerging plastic properties (salience) and the cognitive reading of a given visualization, that tension being resolvable through very different solutions. Finally, we considered the wide reintroduction of a figurative dimension in infographic as an opportunity to scrutinize the topic of the treatment of the entry data, giving a tone to the infographic and activating an affective dimension. Ironic/ludic, lyrical, pedagogical treatment, even dramatization are different forms of data processing depending on the remotivation of the relationships between expressions and contents.

34Some critics could say that infographics are just the spectacularization of useless data, in order to render it more consumable. Infographics would be somewhere in-between the serious and motivated visualizations of science, thanks to the complex devices of the scientific practices on one side, and the flow of big data that is used in the secret rooms of power to take on relevant decisions on the other side. Infographics occupy the residual space of this overflow of information that now can, thanks to the embellishment of graphic design, be consumed. We were observing, on the contrary, how many treatment strategies of data can be imagined and practiced, beyond pure spectacularization. That’s not enough: if the strategic dimension of infographic lays in the choice of the visual device as an attempt to orient and manipulate the form of interpretation made by the reader, the different forms of re-figuration and motivation are creating a further possibility of integration of another level in the organization of cultural life, the one directly concerning the forms of life, through the appearance of an affective dimension and a tone. That’s a matter for future semiotic research.

Haut de page


Basso Fossali, Pierluigi (2008), Vissuti di significazione. Temi per una semiotica viva, Pisa, ETS.

Basso Fossali, Pierluigi (2009), La tenuta del senso. Per una semiotica della percezione, Roma, Aracne.

Bastide, Françoise (2001), Una notte con saturno. Scritti semiotici sul discorso scientifico, Roma, Meltemi.

Bateman, S., Mandryk, R, Gutwin, C., Genest, A., McDine, D., Brooks, C. (2010), “Useful junk? The effects of visual embellishment on comprehension and memorability of charts”, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, New York, ACM, pp. 2573-2582.

Bertin, Jacques (1983), Sémiologie graphique, Paris, Mouton/Gauthier-Villars.

Bordron, Jean-François (2002), “La signification des objets (Sémiotique de la contemplation)”, Versus, n. 91-92, pp. 19-36.

Bordron, Jean-François (2014), Image et vérité. Essai sur les dimensions iconiques de la connaissance, Liège, Presses Universitaires de Liège.

Cairo, Alberto (2013), L’arte funzionale. Infografica e visualizzazione delle informazioni, Milano, Paerson.

Cook, Gareth (ed., 2014), The Best American Infographics 2014, Boston (MA), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dondero, Maria Giulia & Fontanille, Jacques (2012), Des images à problèmes. Le sens du visuel à l’épreuve de l’image scientifique, Limoges, PuLim.

Floch, Jean-Marie (1995), Identités visuelles, Paris, PUF.

Fontanille, Jacques (2008), Pratiques sémiotiques, Paris, PUF.

Gough, Phillip, Dunn, Kate, Bednarz, Tomasz & Ho, Xavier (2015), “Art and Chartjunk: A Guide for NEUVis”, International Journal of Software and Informatics, Vol. 9, Issue 1, pp. 61-72.

Krum, Randy (2013), Cool Infographics: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and Design, Indianapolis, Wiley.

Manovich, Lev (2010), Software Culture, Milano, Olivares.

Tufte, Edward (1983), The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Chesire (Connecticut), Graphic Press.

Tufte, Edward (1990), Envisioning Information, Chesire (Connecticut), Graphics Press.

Waralak V. Siricharoen (2013), “Infographics: The New Communication Tools in Digital Age”, The International Conference on E-Technologies and Business on the Web (EBW2013), online:

Haut de page


1 For a theoretical proposition and a reconstruction of the debate, see for instance Basso Fossali (2009).

2 Bordron devoted many contributions to this topic. See for instance Bordron (2002). On the relationship between perception and cognition, it is sufficient to recall the centrality of this topic in the semiotic journal Visio (since the first number, devoted to “Representation and Cognition”).

3 See Bordron (2014).

4 See Dondero & Fontanille (2012) for a discussion of the tension between the indexical and the iconic dimension of scientific images.

5 See Cairo (2013, ch. 1) for a personal account of this aspect.

6 See for instance Waralak (2013). It could be argued that the classic semiotic reference book about graphic design, Sémiologie graphique (Bertin, 1967), proposes a distinction among different groups of charts that can be largely overlapped to Tufte categorization, long before the term infographic could even be imagined.

7 Note how this general idea is anticipating the augmented reality visualizations.

8 See the infographic here:

9 For a recent review of the debate, see Gough et al. (2015).

10 See Bateman et al. (2010).

11 See for instance Krum (2013, ch. 1, “The art of storytelling”).

12 The infographic is discussed in Cairo (2013, pp. 45-49).

13 Among the most popular applications with pre-formatted infographics and a substantial connection with social media, see, with a name clearly recalling Instagram, aiming at becoming a reference for a generalized production of data visualizations.

14 On the recovery of the Luhmann idea of environment as expression of factors of indetermination and its relationship to a renewed concept of image, as opposed to text, see Basso Fossali (2009, ch. “Immagine”).

15 An online presentation of the infographics is here:

16 The infographic can be seen here, where comments are also present:

17 See Bastide (2001, Ch. 6).

18 Find here online the infographic commented by the author:

19 Wired, July 2013, author: Tim Leong. Find the infographic here:

20 See the campaign here:

21 Here an online presentation:

22 For a semantic analysis of delicateness related to flowers, see Floch (1995, ch. 3).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Infographics about jail population in Brazil.
Crédits Época, 650, by Alberto Cairo and Humberto Maia, 2010.
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,0M
Titre Fig. 2
Légende “Brain drain”
Crédits La Lettura, by Accurat, 2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 748k
Titre Fig. 3
Légende “Nobel prizes”
Crédits La Lettura, by Accurat, 2012.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
Titre Fig. 4
Légende Mapping the infographics in relationship to the practice of interpretation
Fichier image/jpeg, 264k
Titre Fig. 5
Légende “Italian exit resembles an ant”
Crédits Andrea Manzati, Wired, n. 66, October 2014.
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Titre Fig. 6
Légende “Fields of commemoration”
Crédits The Infographic History of the World, by Valentina D’Efilippo (2013), republished in Cook (2014, pp. 86-87).
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
Titre Fig. 7
Légende Figurative treatment in infographics and the emersion of the tone
Fichier image/jpeg, 306k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Giacomo Festi, « Infographics between figures and figurative language », Signata [En ligne], 10 | 2019, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2019, consulté le 14 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/signata.2342

Haut de page


Giacomo Festi

Giacomo Festi (1974), after a PhD in Semiotics at the University of Bologna, is teaching Semiotics at NABA (MI) for graphic and fashion designers, after several years of didactic experiences at Iuav (Ve), Iulm (MI) and at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Pollenzo). Former member of the Lisav and of the Semioticaviva collective, his research interests mainly concern media communication, gastronomy and therapeutic practices, topic of his PhD thesis. He is also working as a freelance semiotic consultant, in Milan, where he lives. Among his recent publications: “Forme dell’ironia nelle forme del web 2.0: un’esplorazione semiotica”, Carte Semiotiche, 15, 2016; “Rimediare una ricetta. Le trasformazioni di un genere nel paesaggio mediatico contemporaneo”, in Migliore, T. ed., Rimediazioni. Immagini interattive, Roma, Aracne, 2016.
Email: giacomo.festi[at]

Articles du même auteur

  • Italie [Texte intégral]
    Semiotics in Italy - 2011
    Paru dans Signata, 2011
  • Italie [Texte intégral]
    Semiotics in Italy - 2010
    Paru dans Signata, 2010
Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Signata - PULg

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universiatires de Liège
  • Logo Université de Liège
  • OpenEdition Journals