Infographic Design – How to Make them Better

Infographic design is a wonderful concept and I absolutely love it when they are done well. Unfortunately, I rarely see one that captures the potential of telling the story through visuals. In this post we’ll talk about the good, the bad and the lessons we can learn about creating a good, data-rich, visual display.

What are the birds saying?

We will discuss the infographic that includes the birds shown below in more detail later. But first, I wanted to get you to think about what these birds communicate to you without interference from the supporting text.infographic of birds

DO YOU have a sense about what the rest of the infographic is going to tell you? Are there aspects of the birds that seem to carry meaning beyond their seemingly uniform cuteness? Do the grey and pink ones indicate some sort of specialness? Is the one with glasses smarter? What up with the birds?!

We will return to the bird infographic later so you can see how well your presumptions are met. But first let’s go over the two rules of good infographics.

Two Rules to Follow

Good infographics should do a couple of things. First, they should embed some of the data into the images thus making it easier and quicker to understand what is being communicated. Second, they should organize the information in a way that makes it easier to remember.

That’s it. If your infographic does not do at least one and preferably both of these things then it has failed no matter how pretty, or entertaining it is. Don’t believe me?

The Oracle of Infographics

Edward Tufte - the Oracle of Infographics

Edward Tufte

The two rules are more than just common sense. They are the foundation of the teachings of  the preeminent expert on the visual display of data, Edward Tufte. “Over the last three decades, Tufte has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization.”

Tufte spent his career teaching at Yale University and is currently one of their professor emeritus. His fundamental teaching is that visual data should communicate information as efficiently as possible. We will review his prime directives soon but first let’s talk about what not to do. By reviewing common infographic mistakes it will make it easier to see the importance of Tufte’s guidelines.

Pretty Not Make Good; Funny Not Make Learn

You will see lots of infographics that use images for visual interest or humor. This can be fun to view and the overall piece can communicate good information through the text.

My argument is, however, that these are bad examples of infographics. If the images don’t help communicate data or make the data easier to remember then the images are simply distractions to the goal no matter how much fun they are.

Goal, you say!?

The creator, author, developer, team that builds the infographic have a goal in mind. By their nature an infographic has the goal of telling, educating, explaining, sharing information about a specific topic with an audience.

Therefore, the more information you can embed into the images the more effective you can be in communicating the information and helping the viewer remember what they have seen.

Nothing Remains

The heart of the problem with many infographics is that if you take away the words you are left with little or no meaning. Nothing remains but pretty shapes and some clip art. In other words, the graphic part of the infographic has no value other than to pretty up the display. It’s just trash compacting a typical PowerPoint presentation into a one page wall poster.

Occupie Chart Wall Street

Let’s use this infographic to illustrate our point. It shows the demographics of people who are part of the occupy Wall Street movement.Occupy Wall Street Infographic

If you review the data you can find some interesting things. For example, 70.2% are independents, 27.4% are democrats, and 2.4% are republicans. But has the pie graph helped with the communication of this and the rest of the data? Wouldn’t listing the data in a few charts make it easier to read and take up much less space?

If you review this infographic and then look away what do you remember anything? There is one piece of data that is very effectively communicated: 93% support the protests. It’s the grayish/purple band that nearly circumscribes the center pie graph. The center pie pieces just all mix together in a mass of different colored segments at the center of the image. But the 93% does a nice job of showing that it almost creates a complete circle. It is the one thing that jumps out visually.

Learn From Examples

Here is another example. We will review some issues with this infographic as well as suggest ways it could be improved.Twitter user profile infographic

We looked at the birds earlier. Were your presumptions realized. Did you think this must be something about Twitter user profiles? Or at least did you think about Twitter? Or did Angry Birds cross your mind?

This is the first problem with this piece. Even if you had not guessed correctly, you should have had an, “of course” moment when you saw the entire infographic. My guess it was more of an “oh, ok, whatever” moment.

It’s easy to trivialize the birds with a statement of, “what difference does it make?” The difference is your mind is always working to reconcile information you are processing. If something is not making it easier to understand what is going on then chances are you are being distracted.

Second, let’s look at the overall flow of the piece. Organizing the information into columns with a consistent content flow does make the information easier to scan and read. But I don’t see that the layout either helps me remember the information better or provide deeper meaning. It’s just an unusually wordy PowerPoint page.

How Can It Be Improved?

Screen shot 2013-11-13 at 10.39.03 PM

Smore Twitter

Screen shot 2013-11-13 at 10.38.42 PM

B1tch Twitter

Now let’s consider how to redo this so it more effectively communicates the information. Currently, the birds show no emotion and are static. By adding an emotional component to each face and putting them into action poses you are able to communicate a great deal of information about each profile.

This can have two positive impacts. First, by connecting the actions and implied emotions to the characters the images would more effectively help in the understanding of each user type. BTW – I modified the Twitter profile images with my pitiful skills in PowerPoint in about 30 minutes. Just imagine what a competent graphic artist could do. 

Second, if the characters are shown in a way that ties them together (perhaps at a party) then it makes the entire concept as well as each profile type easier to remember. You would be able to use the overall image to remember all of the Twitter user profiles and how they interact with each other.

I understand that there are time and skill constraints in building an infographic. But memorable and sharable content pays back many times over the cost of creating it. The most memorable thing about the Twitter User Profile piece is that the information came from Guy Kawasaki.

More to Come

In my next post I will continue this discussion about infographics. It will include some highlights from Edward Tufte’s books, another example of an infographic that needs help, and perhaps the most impressive infographic ever made.

Please comment if you found this post helpful or let me know if I missed the mark. Thank you for reading!



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4 thoughts on “Infographic Design – How to Make them Better

  1. Great post Doug… I never really thought about the intricacies of an infographic that way. You make some really good points. When you think about it… it is an “info”- “GRAPHIC” right. To me this implies that the graphic, itself, should convey the information. Thanks for the article!!

    1. Frank,
      Thanks for the feedback. I love great infographics but ones that are difficult to decipher drive me nuts: the information gets lost in the design.


  2. Doug – love this! I’ve always been really attracted to infographics, and I love studying others, but have always found it very difficult to create my own. This post is a great guide for that.

    1. Kate,
      Thanks for your note. You might find Edward Tufte’s books interesting. Very academic review of how to effectively communicate with images but great stuff. They are not cheap but perhaps your local library has one.


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