A few months ago, a reader on my VizThinker.com site asked me to share my thoughts about the rising popularity of infographics. As both creator and curator in the visual communication space, I’m finding myself asked more and more frequently to review and share infographics so I thought it might be helpful to share that interview here.
What needs (business, organizational, communication, design, etc.) do infographics address?
At their essence, infographics are a form of visual communication. We live in a complex world, bombarded by information. Visuals resonate with people. Our brains are wired to process visual information and infographics are a great tool to help our brains process that information. So, well-made infographics have the capacity to help us understand and make sense of complex topics. In his book, The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo argues that infographics are a “tool for our eyes and brains to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach.” So, in a very real way, infographics can help us make sense of the complex world.
What response should good infographics creators look to achieve from their work (i.e. what do you want people to think, say, feel, etc. when they engage with it)?
As with all communication, the specific response will depend on who the audience is and what story or message is being communicated. But in general, an infographic should tell a story and leave the reader with a sense of increased understanding of the subject. A good infographic should be visually intriguing and draw the reader in, make them want to analyze, compare, and explore. If the infographic has been successfully designed, readers will come away with an increased sense of understanding of the topic.
You definitely don’t want the reader to feel frustrated or lost. To accomplish that, designers should anticipate what questions the reader will want answered and figure out how the infographic should be structured and organized to answer those questions and facilitate understanding. This includes determining what data to leave in, what to take out, what form the data should have, and how it should be structured.
Going back to Cairo’s analogy of infographics as a tool, they should be designed such that they help the reader accomplish some task. They need to have the ability to let the reader ask a question, and, through exploration of the infographic, find the answer.
What kinds of skills, personality, and/or thinking does it require to create great infographics?
I think the most essential traits are a sense of curiosity and desire to learn, along with an interest in a broad range of topics. Additionally a desire to explain things. Respect for the audience and the data is important. The abilities to see relationships in the data and come up with visual concepts to represent ideas and data are great skills to have. Good reasoning and critical thinking skills are needed to find the right story in the data and to tell the right story.
If you have a basic sense of curiosity and wonder with a desire to learn and explain, the other skills can be learned. There’s an enormous amount of material to help learn the craft: books, courses, seminars, conferences, white papers, and websites. Looking at and exploring a wide variety of infographic styles, especially the leaders in the field such as the New York Times, will serve anyone well who wants to create infographics.
What personal strengths does it take to create infographics?
There’s a pretty wide variety of styles and types of infographics and several continuums you can judge them by. One prevailing type is the infographic that is very rational, scientific, data-centric. On the other end of that spectrum is the more “artistic”, decoration-focused approach. Different types and styles appeal to different creators and audiences. Which style is most appropriate depends on the audience and their knowledge, taste, and expectations.
I’m a very analytical person with an engineering background so I tend to prefer a more data-centric style of infographic. Most of the graphics and visuals I’ve created focus heavily on data and very traditional graphs and charts. While I’ve studied graphic design, I’m not what most people would consider a graphic designer. I don’t have a degree in graphic design. Artistic decoration is not my forte. So, I try to play to my strengths, the ability to find and analyze data, see the bigger picture, distill the information down to essentials and represent that in as clean and simple way as I can.
I think people need to play to their strengths. For decades there’s been a debate in the infographics community between the more austere, data-centric approach and the more artistic approach. This started with Edward Tufte’s criticism of Nigel Holmes’ work as ‘chart junk.’ While I tend to favor the more data-centric approach, I realize that there’s a big range in personality, learning, and communication styles. Many artistically-minded people aren’t even going to be interested in looking at work from the more conservative information designers because they would see it as dull and boring. So I think there’s a legitimate audience for and value in infographics that aren’t my particular favored style. They may not resonate with me, but they may resonate with a more artistic person. It gets back to knowing who your audience is and designing to their needs and tastes. So, understand what your strengths are and play to those. But also continuously grow and learn and expand on those strengths in order to improve your craft.
How do you categorize the styles/types of infographics out there?
There are several ways to categorize style and types. One way is the data-focused vs decoration-focused spectrum previously mentioned. Related to that is how abstract vs how figurative an infographic is.
There’s also been a big change in infographics, or the mainstream perception of them, in the last few years. For decades, up until just a few years ago, infographics or information graphics were primarily the product of journalism publications – newspapers and news magazines. They’ve been an essential element of publications like Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, New York Times, etc. for decades.
Over the last few years though, with the rise of social media and internet marketing, web marketers have popularized a new style of ‘infographic’ that is vastly different from the traditional ‘journalistic-quality’ infographic. These are the very tall graphics that are usually very focused on decoration and light on data with the main intent to drive traffic to websites. The difference in these two styles has become the predominant way I classify infographics now. The difference to me, is like the difference between soda pop and wine. They’re both beverages that each has its time and place. The web marketing-focused infographics are obviously the soda pop in this analogy, fizzy, sweet, and popular but not a lot of depth and complexity to them (usually). Contrast that to the more traditional, journalistic quality infographic, that, like a nice red wine has a lot going on – multiple layers and a lot of complexity.
In what new direction would you like to see infographics go in the next few years?
Continuing the soda pop and wine analogy, there are some traditionalists in the data visualization community that would like to see all that soda pop go away and only have wine to drink. I think there’s room for both, but I would definitely like to see the popularity pendulum shift a bit away from the ‘pop-infographics’ towards the more data-dense, meatier infographics. I think we’ll continue to see changes though. We’re seeing new tools and services appear all the time that make it easier and easier for anyone to create those pop-infographics. I think it will be inevitable that we’ll see more and more pop-infographics of lowering quality as more and more people without training gain the ability to create these graphics.
But we’re also seeing an increasing number of resources becoming available to learn the art and craft of creating infographics. A great example of this is Alberto Cairo’s “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization” course, a free massive open online course hosted by the University of Texas School of Journalism. I was fortunate enough to get in on the first course last fall with 2,000 other students. A second iteration of this course with 5,000 students is just finished up and there may be subsequent offerings.
As far as other trends in infographics, I think we’ll continue to see more and more interactive and video infographics. Both are much more labor-intensive to produce than static infographics but offer much richer and more immersive experiences.