In 1983 Edward Tufte, a forefather of infography, expanded on the dictionary definition of an infographic, in the following paraphrase.
(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:
Here are two examples of infographics we’ve worked on for clients, and how they stack up against the criteria above.
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.
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?
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.)
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:
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.
Rewrite your purpose based on what you now know about the audience. For example:
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.
How is the data related, connected? What’s the story in the data? What stands out?
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.