Using graphs and charts to display complex data in ways that make it easy to understand is not a new concept. From the creation of the pie chart in the early 1800s to early instances of visualizing information, such as Charles Minard mapping Napolean’s invasion of Russia, presenting data using visuals has always been around. With the rise of computers and technology, data scientists and statisticians are finding innovative and powerful ways to interpret data and draw conclusions. However, without visualizing that data and making it easy to digest, any important findings from the results will not be widely understood. Most people do not want to look at rows and rows of numbers and attempt to understand the conclusion of that data. If you have important statistics and facts to show, using data visualization is essential to promoting widespread understanding of that information. Effective infographics provide a clear, comprehensible way to understand complex information. Here are 10 tips for creating your own infographics and data visualizations.
1. Tell a story.
Remember that you’re not just throwing data onto a page. You’re using visuals to guide a viewer through the topic, and it should flow linearly to make the information easy to understand. You don’t want your audience confused about what to read and what the data actually means. Breaking the information up into parts, clearly defining sections, and telling a story with your information is essential. In my Seattle Seahawks infographic, I told the story of the Seahawks’ journey to the Super Bowl, but I also created separate sections to communicate background information about the team and their history. By breaking up that information into different sections, there was a clear hierarchy and linear flow to the infographic, which made it easy to read and understand.
2. Design differently for digital vs. print.
If you’re designing for digital devices, like in my Wabi Sabi UI design, then your data should be interactive. Viewers should be able to click, tap, zoom, scroll, and more. Of course, these features should be used only when they help increase understanding. For example, if you’re making a data visualization about an oil spill, have a timeline the user can drag to see the progression of the spill over time. Additionally, digital designs should be more minimalistic and utilize white space. Print designs are one size, so you can design it knowing how the user will ultimately view it. For digital designs, however, they could be on a huge computer display or on a tiny phone screen. Thus, keeping designs simpler and using white space to your advantage will ensure that all viewers can clearly see your infographics, regardless of the device they’re viewing it on. Also, when designing digital infographics, keep the horizontal width less than 735 pixels (to ensure it works on mobile devices) and the height less than 5000 pixels (after that, people get tired of scrolling).
3. Use visuals to aid understanding.
Don’t just put in images and icons because you have empty space. For every visual you add, you should have a clearly defined reason for doing so. In this spread for the Pretty in Plastic magazine, the visuals help explain the different types of plastic surgeries being described. Rather than thinking about the medical terms abstractly, the viewer can clearly see what is being done in each type of surgery. Thus, the visuals aid understanding in addition to breaking up the text.
4. Visualize the hook.
Charts and graphs are interesting, but they’re not going to be what draws in your audience. Use a large visual to attract people’s attention. This should be the “hook” of your infographic: the most important takeaway. For my infographic about making pancakes, I used a large illustration of well-made pancakes to pull people in. You can use other visual aids to reinforce and draw attention to your hook. In the pancake infographic, I used typography in the title to tie in the large illustration. I designed the word “pancakes” in the same style as the illustration and made it appear like the word was written in syrup. Initially, the viewer sees beautiful pancakes and the word “pancakes” written in a fun, interesting way—how could they resist reading more?
5. Show the big picture.
When looking at specific groups of data, it’s helpful to take a step back and communicate the main conclusions and big picture to your audience. Visuals can help do this. For example, in the water conservation infographic I created for the UNC Environmental Finance Center, I used a visual of a house to show that there are ways to conserve water in every room in your house. Rather than just listing ways to save water, connecting these methods to a larger visual (the house) allows the viewer to understand that water conservation can be achieved many ways and contributes to an overall lifestyle of conservation, not just one small change. Visuals on the side also help show how a small leak can add up over time. Adding numbers about how many gallons of water one would save per month helps the viewer understand the big picture.
6. Use a variety of charts/graphs.
This spread in the Pretty in Plastic magazine has a lot of information and complicated data. Thus, it was crucial to use a wide variety of different data viz techniques to ensure that there was visual interest and that the viewer wasn’t confused or overwhelmed. Using a range of charts/graphs shouldn’t be too difficult, either, because most data has an optimal way to be displayed; it’s unlikely that all your data would be perfect for pie charts. Use color, size, and layout to differentiate among the data viz techniques and ensure that the infographic isn’t overwhelming. In the example above, because all the graphs used similar colors, and nothing was too overpowering, the page did not look crowded or overcomplicated.
7. You don’t HAVE to use graphs.
Many people hear “infographic” or “data visualization” and automatically think they need bar, pie, and line graphs. But you can visually represent a complex topic without using graphs, especially if your data is qualitative, not quantitative. In my infographic about white tigers, I used smaller illustrations to show what each block of text was about. Since the main illustration was very detailed, I kept the other illustrations simple as to not compete. You don’t want to use infographics only when the data clearly calls for one; challenge yourself to find ways to use visuals to aid understanding, even if it’s not initially obvious how to do so.
8. Use colors effectively.
Colors are an important resource that designers can use to aid understanding; they do a lot more than make things look pretty. Consider this infographic I designed for the UNC Environmental Finance Center. Throughout the bottom half of the infographic, small, medium, and large systems are referred to. By using consistent colors for these three systems throughout the piece, it helps the viewer understand which system is being referred to, simplifying the data and making viewers rely less on the text.
9. Avoid large blocks of text.
Large blocks of text are difficult to read, and most people aren’t going to read them. Even if there is text you cannot put into a chart/graph/etc., you can still display the text in a way that breaks it up and into easily digestible parts. In this spread from the Pretty in Plastic magazine, a timeline breaks up the text on the right page. Even using bullet points (as on the left page) breaks up text and increases the chance that people will actually read what you write.
10. Animate it!
If you have so much information that there’s no way you can display it all on one page… don’t display it all on one page! There are other ways you can display infographics, and an animated infographic is a great way to do so. I was part of a team that created a motion graphic for UNC Healthcare. We used graphs and visual aids to communicate complicated information. This particular motion graphic ended up winning first place in the animated infographic category of the National SSND Design Contest. Think of outside-the-box ways to present your information and ways you can make your designs more innovative and engaging!