Investigating the Instagram Infographic Industrial Complex
Posted by <Abby Orler> on 2022-02-15
Amidst the public outrage following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, we saw a surge in infographic media circulating on platforms like Instagram, often taking the form of swipe-through posts that offer easily-digested tidbits about trending social issues. For my thesis project at Pratt Institute, I critiqued the phenomenon of the Instagram infographic through a communications design lens, beginning by investigating the questions: Who creates this media? What is their design background? Where does the information come from? Is it credible? Why use the format of an Instagram post? Does this format desensitize us to the gravity of the issues that are addressed?
My primary focus, however, in approaching this subject was to ask: what role, if not making infographics, should design/the designer play in social justice?
After interviewing a handful of designers and researchers who work at the crossroads of design, digital culture & social work, I identified the most common critiques of Instagram Infographics as:
• vast oversimplification of complex issues
• pastel, highly designed graphics that distract from the depth of the content ⁃ tone deafness (i.e. posts about the violence of gentrification made by gentrifiers) ⁃ promoting performative, optics-based approaches to activism, as well as white savior behavior & virtue signaling
• we are quickly desensitized to the gravity of these issues when they’re mixed into the stream of apolitical content on Instagram
One of the designers I interviewed, Logan Heffernan, shared some ideas that ultimately led me to focus on the accountability of the designer in this phenomenon: “[Within social movements], each involved person’s role depends on the needs established and/or identified by the collective body. This may mean supporting efforts to compile pamphlets or readers, but it could just as well mean showing up to an action and providing a body. Designers all too often assume that their ultimate contribution must relate to their profession, a privileged outlook that is only enforced by the perceived importance of graphic design within the Instagram Infographic Industrial Complex.”
An industrial complex is defined as a “socioeconomic concept wherein businesses become entwined in social or political systems or institutions, creating a profit economy from these systems.” Instagram infographics have certainly become vehicles for individual designers, brands, and even governmental organizations to signal wokeness and generate profit off of activist movements.
In an effort to denounce the designer ego at the root of all of this, my goal by the end of the research phase became addressing our instinct to immediately trust and endorse the information we consume, especially when it’s well-designed, by encouraging consumers to be more critical of any media that presents itself as fact.
I began creating “infographic anatomies” as an example of how one might critically dissect an infographic in order to reveal the manipulation tactics it employs. These anatomies study the creator of the post, their stylistic references/design choices, and analyze the language and voice that were used. In effect, this investigation aims to empower us to make more informed decisions about what we subscribe to online, while also compelling us to be more mindful of our own inclination to use informational content to signal some kind of awareness.