Once upon a time, before online marketers seized upon them as vehicles for SEO and viral marketing campaigns, infographics were actually data visualization tools (Crazy, right?). It’s time to get back to those roots, as evidenced by the really bad infographics out there that could be fixed by following some simple principles in research and design.
By keeping infographics about information more than marketing, you can ensure that users find content in them worth sharing and that the time and effort invested in your graphics is worthwhile.
You can see how infographics are done right by looking at how print media use them (and have been for a long time, page 43). After all, magazines and newspapers have limited real estate, and they won’t waste it on mediocre visuals. But online, we have seemingly unlimited visual space to fill. That combined with the fact that infographics are resource- and time-intensive marketing properties to generate, has made poorly researched, lazily designed graphics the norm in online marketing. It ends up being a waste of time and resources for everyone involved.
What An Infographic Is (and Is Not)
Here’s something ironic: a crappy infographic trying to warn you against crappy infographics. It’s hard to tell what exactly the joke is, the punch-lines or the design. But this example gets to the heart of a big source of bad design: Infographics are meant to portray data visually, not just display images with text (those are called web pages). Without getting too sarcastic about it, let’s look at the way that the infographic format gets abused.
- Infographics aren’t replacements for blog posts. You’ll see a lot of top-10 lists and such turned into infographics, but that’s just text and images; there’s no data present, and it certainly isn’t visualized in a compelling way.
- Timelines that don’t really illustrate anything. As that Spy Magazine infographic linked to in the introduction shows, timelines can be extremely information-dense when done correctly. They can also be just a jumble of barely connected facts from a certain historical category. Infographic timelines should be more than just snapshots of different eras; they need to dig deeper into a subject and show an interesting progression on a certain subject over time.
- Graphs are not infographics. If all you have is some bar graphs, pie charts and scatter-plot data, you don’t have an infographic. This is mostly a failure to visualize the data, a vital infographic design principle which we’ll go over later.
- Maps that don’t add anything to the data. Another failure of visualization, here. If you want to map something out, it should show how geography affects, or is affected by, the data you’re presenting. But many graphics use it as a crutch to simply compare data from different locations. There’s often a better way to display that information.
A lot of these problems stem either from the fact that the designers were trying to create an infographic without any information, or they chose a design that was entirely divorced from the data they were presenting. Compare those with infographics that are information-dense, designed around the data and just surprisingly creative (like the one below), and you’ll realize that the bad examples fall way short of what an infographic can and should be.
Battling Research Laziness
The root of most bad content, whether it’s infographics, blog posts or drunken wedding speeches is lack of preparation. Research can be tedious and time-consuming; it’s always more satisfying to start collecting some vector graphics, slap them into Photoshop and hope for the best. But that’s not a good recipe for any good finished product, whether you’re talking web pages or car engines. You have to take more time in choosing your topic, collecting the data and making sure you have enough to support a full infographic in the first place.
Smart Topic Selection: The topic really can be anything. I don’t buy the argument that you can’t turn a survey or any other statistical data into a compelling graphic, as long as you have enough information to make it worth the reader’s time and a smart design that does justice to the underlying questions that the data raises.
Getting Enough Material: Sometimes, though, a particular data point will make a great section for an infographic, but the idea couldn’t support an entire graphic on its own. You have to know whether you have enough data to make it visually interesting, and if you can’t find it during the research phase, it may be that you just have to mothball the subject and pick something else.
A Shareable Payoff: Nobody wants to share an anemic graphic, and readers will actually resent you wasting their time if they clicked on a link and didn’t get what they bargained for. Spreading the information out to make it seem like there’s more of it is like trying to spread your peas out on the plate so you can get dessert. Everybody knows what’s going on here. But with enough material, smartly designed, you’ll be more likely to hit the mark with readers and get them to share.
Tell Me A Story
Theme is everything for infographics; the raw data has to be put into context in an appealing way that surprises, entertains or inspires the viewer. We’re talking about creating a visual narrative that “tells a story” about the information you’re representing. Without a unifying theme, all you have is a large image with a collage of graphs and vector graphics plastered onto it. The theme unites the data in a smart way that’s more than just matching colors and playing with fonts.
The flow of a graphic is part of the theme. Too many graphics don’t seem to have any overall organization to them; the different sections could be completely rearranged without any effect, and that’s a bad thing. Think of this concept as a visual story arch; you have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your graphic, and the reader is intuitively guided from one section to the next. And the flow doesn’t have to be linear. A lot of beautifully arranged graphics aren’t funneled into the 600-pixel wide, blog-friendly format.
Bringing Back Data Visualization
There is a reason that there are sites like Information is Beautiful curate and award well-designed infographics; it’s because some designs definitely stand out, and these curators are sifting the wheat from the chaff. Good design can make insightful connections in even the most (seemingly) mundane statistical data. Bad design (see below) can make even interesting topics seem unimpressive and boring.
There are clichés in data visualization, and you learn them in elementary school: bar and pie graphs. A creative infographic design will have few (preferably none) of them. If your client’s want graphs and charts, they can use Excel; they don’t need a designer. A designer’s job is to find creative ways to make the data come to life and make connections between the data and real life that people otherwise wouldn’t see. On the other hand, playing with fonts and typography is not a substitute for actually visualizing the data in some way.
We also want to see as little text on an infographic as possible; words are meant to be labels, and the images should speak for themselves. A good infographic design makes it easier to quickly digest and share complex or interesting information in a visual way, not through reading. If the information could be more easily described in words, you shouldn’t be using an infographic. You should always show, not tell, whenever possible.
Better Infographics Through Better Planning
Not everyone who is developing infographics for clients needs to be a designer. But by understanding how these graphics can go wrong, we can make sure that we do the groundwork (research, planning, etc.) so that whoever does design it will hit the mark more often, make readers take notice, and you’re your infographic shared by people who curate and spread data that’s displayed elegantly.