I thought it would be appropriate to present the image that I er borrowed to create the masthead of this blog: a double page spread from the Penguin Book of the Natural World, 1976. This is a small but encyclopedic volume covering everything from cells to plants and animals to ecosystems. Several main sections such as those of the plant and animal kingdoms are illustrated with these really nice hand-drawn geometric diagrams.
A larger version
I want to draw attention to the paradox of 'bad information design' versus aesthetic beauty. I'm stricken by the illustrative quality, colour and form of this spread. My favourite part is the cluster of circles on the right, meant to illustrate the 'approximate size of different plant groups'. Of course, from an information design perspective, gaining precise knowledge from this is difficult; research has shown that comparing quantities by surface area such as these circles can be misleading (see for instance Macdonald-Ross 1979). It would be much easier for readers to grasp the real quantities involved with a bar graph, for example. A table of figures would be the most accurate, but also possibly the most off-putting form, unless the illustrator could make a table of figures look amazing. In this sense the less accurate diagram is more effective.
When we are talking about young readers who may or may not have any interest in the subject, maybe all of this doesn't matter, and holding the fickle reader's attention is most important. This opens up a whole can of worms about 'edutainment'. A utopian solution might be to train everyone in principles of good information design. But for now: how much educational value is there in science that has been so tarted up? And isn't some scientific value better than none at all?