How to Make Beautiful and Effective Infographics

We process information through our senses. The data you receive from the world—the electronic music from the coffee shop speakers, the smooth feel of the ceramic mug in your hands, the taste and scent of your black coffee and the sight of the person seated across from you—is processed in a way that feels instantaneous and seamless. In reality, every sensory detail arrives at a different rate, and your brain stitches them together. And most of the information comes through your eyes.

Your brain processes visual information at the rate of a computer network—and approximately 100 times faster than your sense of hearing or smell.

Your brain processes visual information at the rate of a computer network—and approximately 100 times faster than your sense of hearing or smell.

“There’s something almost quite magical about visual information,” says data storyteller David McCandless. “It’s effortless. It literally pours in.”

McCandless is perhaps the best-known advocate for the infographic. You won’t find the word “infographic” in Merriam-Webster, but McCandless—whose TED Talk, “The Beauty of Data Visualization,” has been played more than 2 million times—offers an elegant explanation. Infographics, he says, are “a form of knowledge compression…a way of squeezing an enormous amount of information and understanding into a small space.”

Infographics communicate valuable information quickly, without sacrificing elegance and ease. Accordingly, they can be an effective way for you to share your organization’s story, or explain its goals, or emphasize why your work matters. They can also grow your organization’s audience; the best infographics, after all, are widely shared.

Ignite has an upcoming infographic workshop that’s sure to dazzle your eyes. This week, we thought we’d offer a few tips for making your information look sharp.

Is your information right for an infographic?

Not all information demands the infographic treatment. Simple information may be best communicated with a sentence or two; after all, many people use the web to locate information quickly and easily, which means that short, direct, scannable text often does the job. In many instances, infographics may not be as helpful to your audience as bullet points, or as using Command-F. Most web pages are easily searchable, but plenty of image files are not.

If you force information into an infographic, then your audience will likely know. Worse, you may end up with what Mammoth Infographics calls “a blog post with some colorful decorations.” Mammoth offers a few examples of bad visualizations, including an “underwhelming infographic about how to make good infographics”:

Consider the information that you want to share. Is it data? If so, then how might a graph better tell the story suggested by your numbers? Here’s how No Kid Hungry uses its data to communicate how meal security encourages better outcomes for students from low-income households:

Is the information narrative? Then consider how visuals might explain your organization’s purpose. Habitat for Humanity gave its history the visual treatment in order to help its audience better appreciate the tremendous impact of a small, dedicated team of people:

Your infographic is only as good as your data

“Releasing an infographic with the wrong information could not only be embarrassing,” writes Mammoth Infographics. “You also risk losing a degree of credibility.” The same goes for information that comes from unreliable sources, or information that is mangled in translation.

Sometimes, the process of turning information into visuals leads to problematic pictures. The bright minds at The Guardian collected infographics that suffer from these types of mistakes. A health system improperly represented a modest increase in staffing with an image that suggests a 700 percent increase. An international financial operation miscalculated its circle graph.

Other times, infographics don’t cite the sources of their information, or cite sources that lack expertise and authority. “The quality of an infographic is always determined, in part, by the quality of the content that was used to create it,” according to Josh Ritchie at Column Five. “As such, the source of that content plays an essential role.” He includes some of the questions that Column Five asks for considering the credibility of its sources:

·      Who wrote this webpage? Does the author have credentials?

·      Is this webpage affiliated with a credible organization?

·      When was the website last updated?

·      What is the purpose of the organization that is hosting the website?

·      Does the author provide a bibliography?

There are lessons to be learned from infographics that get information wrong. I 2014, the New York Times published a beautifully conceived data visualization that detailed adulteration practices in the olive oil industry. Within a week, however, the news organization noted that the infographic “contained several errors.” The best infographics are visually ambitious, but visuals should never overreach the bounds of your information.

Form follows function

Your infographics should be crafted to suit the information you want to share, and never the other way around. Not all images can be adjusted to suit your data; that’s putting the cart before the horse. (Here’s a link for those of you who’d like an infographic.)

HubSpot’s year-end infographic roundup includes a few elegant designs that flowed forth from their data. “The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People” is a 24-hour chart of how figures like Flannery O’Connor and Benjamin Franklin spent their time:

National Geographic considered research on the reduction of food varieties, and found an ideal match between data and design:

And MoveHub’s “Cost of Living Around the World” took the shape of—what else?—a map:

“There are endless ways to represent information,” writes Josh Smith at FastCo Design, and he offers a few, from maps to line graphs to flow charts. However, he adds, “this decision is guided by the data, which will lend itself to one or a combination of these formats.”

You’re already doing it

Remember McCandless’ explanation: Infographics compress knowledge. We might have illustrated that line for you—with a vise, or a trash compactor—but telling you in a single sentence was easier and faster.

This isn’t to say that graphic design doesn’t have its place. Instead, it’s a reminder to use graphic design when the situation calls for it. After all, a blog post can be an infographic, too—a careful arrangement of images and words created to convey information. An outfit, or a home-cooked meal, or a vase of flowers on a table, can be an infographic; each is a way of visually communicating information. And the best visualizations should be just as simple.