Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What makes an excellent infographic

If you follow this blog, you know that I've ranted more than once about marketing and PR infographics. The reason? Even if I believe that there's a lot of potential in these areas for well-designed pieces, much of the work we're seeing isn't built to facilitate understanding, but instead to "bring eyeballs" and "go viral" (I am borrowing their jargon). It usually shows an annoying disregard for the quality of the information and for basic principles of visual presentation. I am not against eye-catching infographics —quite the contrary— but honesty, efficiency, substance, and structure must come first.

What worries me the most, though, is that these bad practices —and the language they are based on— are leaking into other areas. If you don't believe me, read Infoactive.co's website and watch their promotional video. "Numbers are boring," they say? Sometimes, perhaps. But transforming them into useless, formulaic, cutesy graphs is unlikely to help.

I've discussed this in a recent interview with Edelman Digital, and in an article by Arnie Kuenn, who asked what constitutes a great infographic. Here you have my answers —read the entire piece, it includes the thoughts of other seven designers:
• What makes an excellent infographic? Good data properly and rigorously processed and organized, structure (narrative or otherwise), copy, and finally, visual style. An infographic should be thought of as a cognitive tool for understanding, an extension of our visual system: a consequence of this is that its form (or forms) should match the tasks it is supposed to help me complete. The first step any designer should take before even switching on the computer is to ask herself: “What do I want my reader to get from this graphic? What will the reader try to do with it?”.
Then, she should choose graphic forms accordingly: Do you want to show the geographical pattern of scattering of a variable? Then, you may need a bubble or choropleth map. Do you want readers to be able to accurately compare values and rank the regions? Then, maps or bubbles are inappropriate and you need to use a bar graph or a dot plot. In other words, think about function before you think about aesthetics.
• What should my expectations be for an infographic? An infographic is a visual presentation of evidence, not just a pretty picture. Therefore, you should look for accuracy, depth, and a presentation that matches what the human visual brain can and cannot do. This is something many designers don’t really get: the goal of a graphic is not to make numbers “interesting,” but to transform those numbers (or other phenomena) into visual shapes from which the human brain can extract meaning.
As I wrote in The Functional Art, a graphic should not be something to be seen, but something to be read and understood. It is not a presentation that you passively absorb, but a visual device you should be able to manipulate and analyze to better comprehend a story.