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Six Rules for Making Infographics More Effective

Greg Kirsch

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Defined as "graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge," infographics have evolved from the "stick figures" we see on public signs (first used to designate various sporting events in the 1972 Olympics) to elaborate pieces incorporating language, dimensions and, most recently, interactivity.

Perhaps one of the first infographics some might be familiar with is a plaque carried by the Pioneer 10 space probe launched in 1972. Using no words—only pictures—the plaque was designed to be understood by aliens that might come in contact with the probe. The plaque sought to explain who we, as humans, are.

Source: NASA

Since then, we’ve witnessed the growth of infographics over the years as USA Today, Time magazine and National Geographic magazine brought the science and art of infographics into the mainstream. Today, books and entire seminars are available on the topic, and infographics are ubiquitous.

As the discipline has evolved, certain individuals, for example Edward Tufte, have emerged as gurus in the field. From these experts and our own experience, we’ve collected the following advice on the development and usage of infographics, especially those presented in the digital medium.

Have fresh, reliable data

The old saying "garbage in, garbage out" applies here. The best-looking graphic in the world is useless if it only gives the viewer out-of-date, rehashed facts. A good rule of thumb is to use recent (i.e. within the last year if possible) statistics from reliable sources. Better yet, use your own proprietary research to ensure its freshness and reliability. Here’s an example of an infographic done by Intouch Solutions concerning in-office detailing experiences among health care professionals (HCPs). It’s fresh information, unavailable anywhere else, presented in a visually compelling and interesting way. Click the second link to see how flat infographics can be brought to life with animation.

Tell a story

"Don’t make me think" is a mantra often used in presentation skills training. In a presentation, each slide should take your audience by their collective noses and lead them directly to what it is you want them to think. Similarly, there is a book by the same title on Web Usability by Steven Krug. Using the same logic, viewers will spend at most, a moment or two trying to understand your infographic. Therefore the best infographics have a clear point of view and, in fact, tell a story. Every element of the infographic should support that storyline. In the example below, it’s clear the story the graphic tells is that the Internet is the medium of choice for patients looking for answers to their health questions.

Cleverness counts

Infographics that engage and, in fact, delight the viewer are very effective. For example, note the use of the imagery in this infographic. Instead of a simple bar or pie chart, adaptu.com—an investment services site—uses diamond rings and a wrapped wedding gift to show the cost of the average American wedding.

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)

Some infographics suffer because they try to cram in too much information. Use chunks of copy and let the picture tell the story. Here’s a simple but effective infographic from the United Nations illustrating the point that our consumption of seafood is outpacing the supply.

Interactivity rules

We know that the more we can get viewers to engage with our digital communications, the more likely it is they will follow the intended path through the site. Using animation, video and clickable links adds the element of interactivity to infographics on the Web.

Check out this interactive infographic (created by a Google Creative Lab employee) that allows one to understand how the government spends their tax dollars. The viewer can alter the year, income amount, filing status, etc., with the resulting interactive bubble graph showing how much goes to Social Security, how much to national defense and so forth. Clicking on the individual bubbles gives the viewer more information on that line item. (Note: Use a browser that supports HTML5 Canvas like Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari). http://datavizchallenge.org/example-viz/

Sharing is key

The beauty of infographics is that they can take complex subjects and make them easy to understand. This is why so many have gone viral via social media. The implication is clear: Provide a clear URL to the image, add sharing buttons, and let visitors know that you are okay with them sharing the graphic in their blog posts, Facebook posts, or tweets.

There’s disagreement over who first coined the term "a picture is worth a thousand words," but few debate its truth. And it’s no wonder. It’s widely reported that 60 percent of us are visual learners. Couple that with the onslaught of information we are bombarded with daily and the explosion of infographics today is not surprising. Follow these best practices to make your infographics communicate what you want, to whom you want, in the most effective way.

Sources: NASA USA Today Adaptu www.good.is www.coolinfographics.com columnfivemedia.com datavizchallenge.org www.intouchsol.com

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