communications strategy

Elements of effective infographics

Carolyn McMaster | May 28, 2013

Infographics are increasingly popular, a trend driven by the proliferation of ways to share and create them, as well as a universal need to grasp information as quickly as possible and without a lot of effort.

But just because it’s visual doesn’t mean it’s effective: turning data or concepts into meaningful graphics is as much an art as a science. (In this animated wind map, art meets science big time.) Effective infographics that go beyond the basic chart or graph typically hit these marks:

Strong message or story. Know what you’re trying to convey before you get started. The best infographics tell a story (through numbers, maps or flow charts, for example) and deliver a clear message. Here’s the story of the ebb and flow of 30 years of music formats.

Relevant data. This is the science. Statistics and other data should be accurately presented and relevant to your message or narrative. If you’re starting with the data, what story does it tell? If you’re starting with a story or message, make sure the the data you present truly supports your points. Here’s a good example that illustrates relative carbon footprints by country.

Illumination. An infographic should take your story beyond the numbers and provide some insight. If you’re just showing the obvious, all you have is a glorified bar chart. This illustration of satellites by country is so effective, it’s eerie.

Show, don’t tell. If you need a lot of written explanation, rethink your concept.

Keep it clean. You don’t want a muddle of data—use only the information needed to get the point across. If there are a lot of parts, break it down into mini-graphics that work together (like chapters in a book, as in this long piece on the growth of green technology). If it’s a flowchart, for instance, too many turns or paths will baffle rather than illuminate.

Professional design. This is where art comes in. A great concept will be effective only if people can follow it—and it takes design thinking to translate data into a visual story and let the numbers speak for themselves. A good design amplifies and illuminates, with a style, colors, imagery, icons, symbols and typography appropriate to the content and its context. The Feltron annual reports are gorgeous.

For more examples, check out “65 Best Infographics on the Web.”

Next up: we’ll review and rate three online infographic creation tools.


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