When and how to create an effective infographic

Posted by Gareth Parry

Infographics. From information and graphics – pictures that help to explain or explore concepts, data, information. Those 65% of us with a preference to process information as pictures (instead of just as written or spoken words) will have experienced some great examples, and some rather odd ones.

What makes an effective infographic?

In 1983 Edward Tufte, a forefather of infography, expanded on the dictionary definition of an infographic, in the following paraphrase.

Infographics are graphical displays that show a lot of data in a small space, coherently, without distortion, from broad overview to fine detail, encouraging comparison, integrating with statistical and verbal descriptions of data, inducing thinking about the subject, and with a reasonably clear purpose (either to describe, explore, tabulate, or decorate).

(That’s a fairly liberal paraphrase. For Tufte’s actual quote, see Tufte, Edward (1983). The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press. ISBN 0961392142.)

Tufte’s definition describes a set of criteria against which the effectiveness of an infographic might be evaluated. Let’s pull those criteria out, and complement them with a couple of user-centred-design chestnuts. An effective infographic is one that:

  • has a clear purpose, and achieves that purpose for the intended audience
  • makes sense, particularly for its intended audience, and helps them see trends and patterns – the story in the data
  • is compelling – people want to engage with it
  • is true to the data, not distorting, manipulating, or misrepresenting the truth
  • is in a fit-for-purpose format.

Here are two examples of infographics we’ve worked on for clients, and how they stack up against the criteria above.

Digital Benchmarks Infographic

  • Purpose? Helps clients understand how their digital channels serve the customer experience.
  • Makes sense? While there’s a lot of data in these reports, it’s carefully curated to tell a compelling story.
  • Compelling? Quotes from recipients include: ‘people keep stealing my poster’, and ‘lots of people refer to this.’
  • Accurate? Absolutely. We research this sort of data using a bunch of industry standard user-centred design methodologies. These methods cut through opinions and give real evidence for how people experience a service.
  • Fit for purpose? These commonly end up pride-of-place on the wall client-side, and are often referred to and discussed by client teams long after they’re published.

Customer Journey Maps

  • Purpose? Summarises research findings and helps clients understand their customers’ experience of a service.
  • Makes sense? Journey mapping along a horizontal timeline is a well established and effective visual communication technique.
  • Compelling? They contain invaluable insight for clients, packaged in a simple, easy to digest format.
  • Accurate? They’re research based, documenting actual experiences.
  • Fit for purpose? They’re in an easy to reference format for clients.

When is an infographic needed?

The short answer here is if your purpose for your intended audience suits visualisation. Some suitable examples of purpose might include…

Okay, so why isn’t this article an infographic? Let’s look at the purpose and audience.

  • Purpose – to explore what constitutes an infographic, why they work, and how to create one.
  • Audience – website and newsletter subscribers.

Bit of a hint in the audience there. A goodly portion of subscribers will have a soft spot for visuals – but they are newsletter subscribers…

So, we have a definition (a picture showing information), some criteria and examples of what good looks like, and an idea of when an infographic might be useful. Now, how might we create one?

How do you create an effective infographic?

Here’s how we approach creating an infographic. This process is fairly analogous with a user-centred or design-thinking approach – gain empathy with your audience, understand what needs to be communicated and why, generate some options, select, craft, test, iterate, repeat. It’s action-packed! (Of course, not every infographic project has the luxury of following these steps – but those that do are far more effective for having done so.)

1. Purpose
What’s the purpose of the infographic? Talk to stakeholders. What do they think? Have a go at summarising the purpose in one sentence – then test that sentence with stakeholders over a conversation. For example:

  • to outline what to do in an emergency
  • to analyse our performance over the last year, and predict our performance this year
  • to describe how our new service works.

2. Audience
Who are they? How are they differentiated? What variations in use might be expected from them? What do they know now? What are their questions? Why do they care? Once you’ve made a few assumptions, try testing those assumptions with real users to see if you can confirm or invalidate those theories.

3. Reframe
Rewrite your purpose based on what you now know about the audience. For example:

  • to show highly experienced and educated helicopter pilots what to do if an accident happens
  • to help a team of people who have basic financial literacy, understand their team’s financial performance in the last 24 months, and forecast the next 12 months
  • to show our target customers how our new service benefits them.

4. Data
What data do you need or have now? Is it accurate? How does it relate to your audience’s questions? If you can, validate your data at the source. If necessary, gather more data – or at the very least disclose the gaps in the data.

5. Story
How is the data related, connected? What’s the story in the data? What stands out?

6. Ideate
This is where the magic beings to happen. Explore the question: ‘How might we explore the audience’s questions and the reframed purpose in the context of the data?’

  • Explore ways that the data can be visually represented (for some ideas, take a look at the infographic above).
  • We tread carefully with visual analogies. Sometimes, analogies work well. Sometimes, they really, really don’t. What you think an analogy means, may mean something completely different for someone else. If you’re using an analogy, test it well.
  • Be open to solutions other than infography. Information design has a whole arsenal of design strategies to help information be clearly understood. An infographic isn’t always the only or the best solution.
  • Incidentally, ideation is the perfect place for a co-design workshop.

7. Select
Pick 1–3 ideas that best explore the audience’s questions, the reframed purpose, and the data. To help work out which ideas are working best you can use one of a number of frameworks, like: power-dot-voting; weighted user criteria; impact versus effort matrices; organisational and user desirability/technical feasibility/social, financial, and environmental viability.

8. Sketch
Start messing around with a pen and paper, a marker and a whiteboard, or a sharpie and a flipchart. Flesh out those 1-3 ideas, populating sketches with as much of the data as you’re able. Play with how the visual hierarchy should work – what should attract the eye first, and where should the eye be led. Think about layers – a layer for data, a layer for labelling data, and a layer for guiding the audience through the story of that data. Begin to craft the copy you’ll need to support the visuals.

9. Test
Test the sketch, one-on-one, with 3–5 real users. (Or, at the very least, run the design past someone who hasn’t been involved in the design process.) Observe how they interact with the sketch, and ask them to explain it back to you. Then aggregate the findings and…

10. …Iterate the design based on those findings.

11. Write
Flesh out the copy that was scaffolded up earlier. Loop back to the purpose, audience questions, and data. What else needs describing? Massage the tone. Add another test round, if you’re able to.

12. Look and feel
Build the infographic using a graphic design tool, layering over a look and feel. This phase inevitably means some changes need to be made to the sketched version – ideas often need to be reworked. Shift elements around and refine the concept as needed.

13. Test
Test the refined version once again. This will confirm whether you’ve solved the problems identified in the last round of testing, and whether you’ve introduced new complexities.

14. Iterate again
If the infographic involves animation or interaction, start layering that in at this point – after you’re confident it’s achieving the intended purpose for the target audience.

15. Publish
Show it to the world. Infographics involve complex data and design decisions that are hidden by the final, simple, visuals. Be prepared and ready to iterate it quickly if the wider audience has feedback.

What now?

Well, the Picture Superiority Effect strongly suggests that infographics work. Tufte and user-centred design gave us some criteria to assess their effectiveness. We’ve got an idea of when they might be useful. And we’ve mapped out the process we use when creating infographics.

You could have a go at measuring the effectiveness of an infographic you’ve come across using the criteria we listed earlier (purpose, makes sense, compelling, accurate, fit-for-purpose?). If you’re struggling to find an infographic to evaluate, try a Pinterest search. And if you’d like some particularly poor examples to evaluate, or if you’re just after a bit of a laugh, see wtfviz.net

Or, if you’re simply fascinated by the slightly (less?) mysterious art of infography, or need help figuring out if an infographic is right for you, get in touch.

Posted by Gareth Parry.

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