Infographics: the answer to information overload?
Infographics – they’ve been called the language of the internet, visual essays or data visualisations, and they’re spreading rapidly. Thanks to information overload and the advent of digital and mobile technology, more and more readers these days ‘skim the surface’ rather than dive into narrative. Writers and designers are being challenged to cut down on unwieldy text and use their skills to tell visual stories that are easily and quickly understood.
That’s why, in the age of big data, infographics have truly come of age. Writing and designing a sustainability report for Lion, one of Australasia’s leading food and beverage companies, recently gave us an opportunity to test our skills in this area. The report was published a fortnight ago as an interactive pdf on the company’s website www.lionco.com. Check out the infographics on pages 1, 4 and 19.
What lessons have we learned from our foray into infographics?
1. It’s a collaborative exercise: Strategic thinking is as important as good design, so an effective infographic (there are plenty of bad ones) comes about as a result of close collaboration between writer and designer.
2. The numbers must tell a story: An effective infographic requires a clear vision of the story behind the numbers. All good stories are built on a firm angle or idea, not just a topic (for example, tax-effective investments is a topic, 10 tips to saving tax on your investments is an angle). Infographics must make sense of the numbers so that the story they share is easily understood.
3. Show, don't tell: Writers are often told to use the ‘show don’t tell’ technique to enable readers to experience the story through actions rather than words. In infographics, the ‘actions’ become visual. In the drafting process we revisited every element to see whether we couldn’t further ‘visualise’ the data.
4. Observe the principles of good design: Infographics must be aesthetically pleasing, so your choice of fonts, colours, size, graphical devices and spatial relationships is critical.
5. Clarity is key: It’s vital to edit the superfluous so you present the most compelling data – in the least amount of space. The reader must be able to look at it and instantly know what it’s about.
Incidentally, internet chatter and the self-styled specialists who have sprung up in recent times would have us believe that infographics are new. But they’ve been around for a long time.
Indeed, as The Guardian newspaper’s newly launched Show and Tell infographic site points out, German physician Fritz Kahn’s extraordinary poster, visualising the human body as a vast network of machines and industrial processes, was published in Stuttgart in 1926.
And The Table of Universal History, a visualised history of humankind, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the then present day goes back even further. It was published in Paris in 1858.