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Designed to mislead: How an info-graphic can be designed to be propaganda

A friend of mine recently sent me an animated info-graphic that depicts America’s unemployment rate, broken out by county, over time from 2007 through 2010. As you watch it, you can see how increasingly devastating the unemployment picture looks after 2008. It looks a bit like a black plague of unemployment is consuming America.

This animated info-graphic paints a petrifying picture, and he shared it with a group of friends to reinforce the dire situation. It’s not too far-fetched to think that his kind of information may impact which candidates one votes for this upcoming election. Being quite sensitive to political discourse in America, I couldn’t help but be struck that something in this info-graphic smelled a little funky. So, I started investigating what was driving this experience, and what I found was revealing: a strategic use of design to give an imbalanced perception of the data being presented.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

In my analysis, there are three obvious attempts to paint a picture that appears worse than the data represents. I’m going to order these from most strategic and sly to the most obvious:

  1. Strategic use of color spectrum. The designer of this info-graphic strategically uses the a full continuum of color (from light-yellow to deep blue) to represent unemployment rates from 0-10%. By using up the entire spectrum of color, it gives the impression that 10% is actually more like 100% unemployment. This is a sly (and I’d argue misleading) use of color spectrum to artificially amplify the actual data its representing.

  2. Strategic use of color scale. Look at the scale on the bottom-right of the info-graphic. Notice how much more quickly and substantially dark the color shades get as we creep up past 5.9% unemployment? The increments of shade darkness accelerate as the % unemployment rises . Perhaps one could say that this is a way of demonstrating “unacceptable levels” of unemployment at a point that is above 5.9%. This could be a valid way of conveying this message, however, once the designer does this, we’ve left the world of information and entered the world of editorial (or, worse, propaganda). In any case, you can see for yourself that color shade increments are unevenly distributed to paint an unbalanced picture.

  3. Strategic use of numeric scale. Let’s look at that scale in the bottom-right corner again. It uses 1% increments until we get to purple, where purple represents a 3% range. This is the clearest violation of info-graphic expectations, as it disproportionately amplifies the effect of the darker color shade on the map. Yes, the inconsistent scale is there for all to see — and that’s good — but most people aren’t looking that closely. Most viewers are likely left with a sense of horror over the economic conditions of the country — particularly from 2008-2010.

What we have here is a visual experience designed to take a bad situation (10% unemployment is very troubling, of course) and bend and stretch the presentation of information to fulfill the desired agenda of the designer. The viewer is left with an inflated sense of desperation and dread that is not warranted based on the actual data the graphic claims to represent.

This is a quite effective (if not insidious) example of experience design: The designers seemed to have defined the emotional experience first, followed by the rest of the pieces of the experience that were specifically designed to ensure the goal is effectively conveyed.

The most clever strategy here was to use an info-graphic as the display metaphor, because most people expect info-graphics to depict information… not editorial/propaganda. By using an established, trusted metaphor, the other misleading mechanisms identified above are rarely inspected, and the viewer is left with an inaccurate depiction of the data.

While this info-graphic demonstrates the use of experience design to mislead, these same principles can be applied to convey meaning without misleading. Perhaps after this example, though, we might all be just a bit more aware how experience design can be used to drive people to a desired set of emotions and conclusions.

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