Infographics can be a particularly powerful tool in displaying complex and often high-level information at a glance. The better your infographic, the better your audience will understand the information.
Creating a great infographic is like creating a great film.
Writers of movies often draw from a wide range of sources to create their narratives. You wouldn’t write a screenplay based on World War II without doing your research first, right? As designers of infographics we can draw from a wide range of sources to create a clear picture of the situation we’re trying to portray.
Infographics are often described as telling a ‘story’. This story may be supporting or dispelling an argument, highlighting a trend, or explaining consumption of some kind. The possibilities are endless. There’s even an infographic about the trustworthiness of beards!
When looking at your data, consider if your ‘story’ is a nail biter that will keep your viewers on the edge of their seat, or like the infographic on Kanye’s love life: will it be switched off after the opening credits?
Here are 10 tips to help you get started.
1. Know your stuff
Imagine you’re watching a movie, and it’s really heating up. You’re gripping the arms of your seat and peering anxiously over your overpriced bucket of popcorn. The bad guy is chasing the hero and has him pinned against the wall of a darkened alley. He reaches into his trench coat to pull out his oversized revolver and…wait, there’s no gun! The writer forgot to put it in the script.
It really blows to have your hard work picked apart because you missed an important piece of data or decided to overlook it in favour of how you wanted your infographic to look. Ensure you don’t sacrifice the accuracy of your data for your ‘vision’, represent your data honestly.
Start by playing with your data, examine it and see if/how it will all fit together. Explore what works and what doesn’t. Get your first idea out of the way quickly.
Don’t get stuck thinking about design elements at this stage, they will come after you have organised your data in an effective and meaningful way. Spend some time thinking about the complexity of your data, figure out how much needs to be explained versus how much can be inferred by your audience.
Remember nothing for no good reason – if it doesn’t aid in telling the story it probably doesn’t need to be there.
2. Get to know your audience
It’s important to determine who your intended audience is so you can design for them. Spend some time getting to know them before you craft your infographic. Writers of epic movie sagas maintain a dedicated following through carefully crafting their pieces to satisfy the appetite of their audience. Have you ever noticed the hero just about never dies and the villain is always defeated? Epic movie saga fans love that stuff!
Part of getting to know your intended audience is taking some time to think about what will work for them and what won’t. Ask yourself some questions such as “what questions will my intended audience want to ask about the data?” and “what does my audience already know?”
By knowing and understanding your audience you can consider the form of story that will appeal to them, informing your design.
3. Define the roles clearly
How confusing is it when you go to see a movie and you can’t quite figure out what the relationships are between characters? The hero isn’t clearly defined, there doesn’t seem to be a leading lady, and the supporting cast seems to be the main event. Oh man!
Your audience is just as confused when the relationship between your data isn’t clear.
Begin by finding the ‘hero’ in the story. Give them the best costume and give them the space to shine. This will help your viewers understand who’s the star of the show (or in most cases the most important or surprising piece of data). Just like characters in films are thoughtfully costumed to communicate things about who they are, the visual elements of your infographic should do the same.
Arranging your ‘characters’ in order of importance through visual prominence will create the hierarchical structure of your infographic. The infographic below is an example of how this can be done. The sizes of the bubbles indicate how deadly each of the pandemics was. The larger the bubbles the more causalities involved. But I didn’t have to tell you that, right?
Deadliest Pandemics in History
This sort of display of data allows us to understand the relationship between the data at a glance. Make sure you arrange you data in a way that helps your audience understand your story.
4. Create a meaningful title
We often judge a movie by its cover. The title can be one of the key ingredients in forming an opinion about a movie and choosing whether we want to watch it or not.
You want to give your audience a clear picture of what they should expect from your infographic, so give it an appropriate title. Think back to your intended audience here, what engages them? What key phrases will they be looking out for?
As alluring as it is to create a witty title, ensure it summarises and represents the data you are portraying. The title of an infographic is your first chance to draw the attention of the audience. It’s important to give viewers a realistic expectation of what your infographic contains.
You don’t want your infographic to end up like that dusty old DVD at the back of the shelf with a bad title and even worse hair.
5. Educate your audience
Some of the best movies introduce us to something new. Whether it’s a new way of living, a country we’ve never been too, or that it is in fact possible to enter another world through the back of a wardrobe.
Similarly, great infographics should educate us. This is why it’s so important to frame your data in a way that is easy for your audience to understand. I particularly like infographics that deliver quirky little quotes like the example below.
The Wonderful World of Bacon from Killer Infographics
See the full infographic here
A great infographic connects to the viewers appetite for knowledge and inspires them to learn more. Just like those nasty old television soaps that leave us hanging after every episode.
6. Tell an engaging story
The plot is arguably the most important part of a movie. Without a good plot a movie is almost always destined to fall flat. We usually come away from a movie with a weak plot feeling ripped off and disappointed.
Most people spend only a few seconds fixated on any one thing before moving on to the next. Consider how you’ll convince your audience to stick around.
Unlike committing to seeing a movie and loosing a decent wad of cash to the candy bar, your viewers have no sense of obligation to stay and see how your infographic plays out. To get the viewer to stay you must engage them.
With the help of your meaningful title, keep your potential viewers attention by telling an engaging story.
All good stories have a beginning, middle and an end. You can do the same in your infographic. Introduce your problem or argument, back it up with your data, and finally summarise it. This is not to say all infographics must follow this rule. You may like to leave yours open with a bold statement to inspire action from the viewer. There are many ways of engaging the viewer – perhaps you have some tricks of your own!
This infographic from Extra Space Storage tells a the story of solar savings, engaging the audience in the journey of solar innovation.
Solar Savings: A Solar Innovation Story
See the full infographic here
7. Pick the best medium to tell your story
Is your story a horror? Or is it more of a light-hearted comedy spoof?
When considering the style you will use to tell your story keep in mind your data and intended audience. Think about where your infographic will live (e.g. brand, or medium). Just like a movie, good craftsmanship will help to bring your story to life.
What style will suit your story? Will it be a standard format (like a pie chart, line graph, bar graph, fish scale diagram, list, flowchart, relative area graph…), an analogy, a conceptual diagram, or a literal diagram?
There are many ways of displaying data. The style you choose should support and strengthen your story, as the way you choose to communicate visually will affect how your data will be perceived. Imagine if Lord of the Rings had been shot in downtown LA – we’d certainly have a much different perception of Tolkien’s ‘middle earth’.
Remember, you want your viewer to engage with the purpose of your infographic not the graphic design or production. Therefore, your choice of graphics, typefaces, and production shouldn’t get in the way of allowing users to do so.
8. Direct the viewer
We’re not expected to devise the plot, as we watch a film. The storyline is there, already thought out for us to follow and enjoy.
A well-designed infographic does the same. All the information the viewer needs to form a mental model of the story should already be there, mapped out for the viewer to follow.
Your audience shouldn’t have to hunt for the facts or make obvious connections. That’s your job as the creator of the infographic.
Paint the picture you want your viewers to see.
9. Test the waters
There are some movies that leave us scratching our heads and wondering how they made it past the drawing board and escaped out into the world.
Make sure you check in with others as you move through the process of creating your infographic. This will save a tonne of time, allowing you to make minor adjustments as you go, rather than realising you’ve gone to the dark side and just don’t know to get back.
Once you have a final(ish) design, show it to several people who aren’t familiar with the data. See what they draw out of it. This will give you an idea of what is being picked up on and what is being missed. Iterate, iterate, and iterate some more until your viewers are getting everything you intended them to get out of your infographic.
Assess that the data you’ve presented speaks to the topic and answers your audiences’ questions.
It’s time to show your masterpiece to the world! Iteration can continue even after we’ve uploaded or published our infographic, continuing to iterate after observing the audiences response, tweaking and evolving the infographic as necessary.
Do you need to change a character? Or create a sequel?
We can’t possibly always find every dimension of the story we’re trying to tell. Our audiences will point other aspects and considerations from time to time. Keep your eyes and ears open. Consider all feedback as constructive and use it to make your infographic rock even harder.
Like a great movie, a great infographic will been seen, talked about and shared. I hope these tips will help you create a blockbuster!