This is a continuation of my post from last week.
The Infographic Guidelines
- Communicate data visually.
- Help readers remember the information.
These are the infographic prime directives. There are a few subordinate rules for each of these directives that will help you as you develop your work.
First, try to maximize your data to ink ratio (a term from Edward Tufte). This means, eliminate all elements that do not help communicate the important data. This can be as trivial as having too many lines on a bar graph, or eliminating multiple hummingbird images from an infographic about Google’s algorithm change.
The bottom line is you should remove any ink that is not helping to communicate the information.
Second, always consider the acuity of the human eye. We can detect visual variations of less than 2 mm. For this reason do not hesitate to collapse large lists of data into a visually detailed chart. This is especially true if you will be printing the information since we can discriminate printed material much more effectively than info on a computer screen.
The key is to create an easy to understand framework for the chart so that the data is not lost in an ambiguous framework.
Do Not Misrepresent
Third, avoid misrepresenting the data. For example, one of the most common techniques used to emphasize the change in a bar graph at the expense of truthful representation is to make the baseline start near the lowest number in the range. Both of the illustrations below show the same data but one visually misrepresents the information.
The image on the left shows that the ’09 revenue column is only about half of the height of the ’12 revenue column. In actuality ‘12 is only 12.5% greater. It is common that companies use these kinds of visual tricks to influence the reader.
It is just as common that the reader recognizes what is being done and then makes mental adjustments both for the graph as well as their perception of the company.
Size Has Meaning
Another common misrepresentation is to show a large circle that represents x and a smaller or same size circle that represents 3x. Not only does it misrepresent but, as stated before, it forces the viewer to make mental notes about the inaccurately represented information.
In fact, most viewers pick up on these types of errors. And then do some mental analysis to determine if the misrepresentation has a hidden, legitimate reason for being there, if it is an intentional attempt to trick the viewer, or if it is just sloppy.
Here is another example of one that did not follow the infographic guidelines. The Amazon octopus infographic does some interesting things. First, it shows the companies that Amazon acquired or invested into from 1998 through 2009. Second, it shows the bigger acquisitions with larger boxes. Third, you can see which years were busier than others by just scanning across the image.
But do all the bends in the line mean anything? Also, you have to read the dollar amount associated with the purchases to get a sense of the importance of most of the purchases since they are generally represented by boxes and font sizes that are the same size.
What is the Goal
Ultimately you have to consider what you are trying to share with the viewer. The Amazon image shows that the company has made lots of purchases: so what? What is the significance?
If the creator wants to show all the companies that Amazon purchased why not just create a table. It would be much easier to scan without the eye having to figure out what the color lines mean and if there is any significance to the twists and turns.
Amazon Compared to Brick and Mortar?
One option would be to show Amazon’s growth compared to large brick and mortar companies. The logos of Amazon’s acquisitions could still be shown along the revenue line for Amazon or beneath the chart. The chart below starts where the Amazoctopus infographic ends so is not an apples to apples. I grabbed recent revenue data which was more readily available.
However, it shows how Amazon has grown over the last several years and is currently making more annual revenue than Target (note that Amazon’s 2013 final quarter is an estimate). The same information could have been gathered for the years 1998 to 2009 to show how Amazon grew from nothing to move past JC Penney.
This graph by itself is much more interesting since it gives a point of reference: we all know JC Penney and Target. Those retail chains are a couple of the biggest in the US. But Amazon has surpassed them both in about 15 years.
The chart that shows all of Amazon’s acquisitions is interesting if you have some understanding of each of the acquired companies. In the aggregate, however, they are not so meaningful. Showing this growth in relationship with more tangible competitors is significant.
A Fine Example
The following map of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is a fine example of a chart that has followed the infographic guidelines. The reddish colored line moves from left to right and shows the invasion as it moves into Russia. The width of the line represents the total number of men in Napoleon’s army. He starts with 422,000. By the time he reaches Moscow (at the far right) his army is reduced to 100,000 men.
The return march adds new information: the line graph that is beneath the main map. It shows the temperature during the march in degrees Reaumur. (Reaumur = .8 Celsius) Notice how as the army retreats from right to left the temperature drops dramatically.
By the time Napoleon’s army escaped Russia there were only 10,000 men remaining. Though this graph is a bit dry it does communicate a great deal of data. The width of the line indicates the size of the army; red indicates invasion into Russia and black shows the retreat; rivers and town names have been added to show you where the army was located; the table below the main map shows the temperature during the retreat.
In Edward Tufte‘s Words
When describing the representation of visual data, Tufte says,
“The instruments are those of writing and typography, of managing large data sets and statistical analysis, of line and layout and color. And the standards of quality are those derived from visual principles that tell us how to put the right mark in the right place.”
What You Need
The infographic developer must have a strong understanding of the data that needs to be communicated and how it should be communicated. The developer must also have a strong understanding of how to use graphic design tools to effectively build the infographic.
Though this does not need to be a single person it is important that the team work together to create something that is true to the data, tells an interesting story, and helps the viewer remember the data.
Look at examples in the future and ask if they have followed these infographic guidelines. If not, perhaps there is an opportunity for you to take the same data and create an infographic that is much more interesting and useful.