In his book, The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo writes, “The first and main goal of any graphic and visualization is to be a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach.”
Effective infographics accomplish this by reducing the barriers to understanding. They make information and data accessible by condensing it into something manageable. They help us overcome our limitations in understanding. No wonder we are fascinated by infographics.
Quantitative versus Qualitative Infographics
Infographics can represent both quantitative and qualitative content. Quantitative infographics refer to numbers and data—anything that can be measured, such as graphs, data visualizations and statistical maps or thematic maps). Qualitative infographics represent content that can’t be measured, using charts, diagrams and illustrations to represent objects and ideas. Hybrid infographics include both quantitative and qualitative content.
Designing and Interpreting Infographics
When designing quantitative infographics, you are translating data values into visual features. You encode the values of the data into points, lines, shapes, colors and similar attributes. For example, the value of each data point in a line graph is represented as a circle on a coordinate scale and the color of the line represents the category of data.
When designing qualitative infographics, particularly charts and diagrams, you encode concepts into its spatial features. For example, you may group elements in close proximity to show there is a relationship between them. You would place the president of a company in an organizational chart at the top to indicate importance.
Encoding is just one area to think through during the design process. If you are looking for ways to improve the design of your infographics or ways to get started with infographic design, here are 21 guidelines.
Make a Plan
1. Analyze the need. Analyze the data and information at hand. Will a visualization help your audience understand it? Are you telling a story or persuading with statistics? If you determine you have a need for infographics, go forward. If not, stop before you back yourself into a corner.
2. Identify the objective of the visualization. Determine what you want the audience to do with the infographic. What should they know? What action should they take?
3. Determine the graphic literacy of the audience members. If possible, identify whether your target audience can extract information and meaning from the format you choose. Surprisingly, people of all education levels can have difficulty understanding graphs. Unless you are designing for an audience of scientists, researchers or statisticians, choose commonly used visualization formats that you see in the popular media. For example, research shows that most people find vertical bar charts (column graphs) with scales easier to understand than other types of graphs.
4. Choose the right visualization for your data and content. Infographic formats were designed for specific types of data and content. A flowchart is an effective way to show a process. A line graph is effective for showing trends over time. Bar graphs are effective for representing and comparing quantities. There are many online resources to help you choose the best chart type for your content.
5. Create a focus through contrast. When you know your purpose and how people should use the information, identify the focal point of the infographic early in your design process. Then emphasize the focal point through contrast, such as making it brighter, larger, thicker or using a visual cue. This is how you create a visual hierarchy.
Organize the Layout
6. Align elements with each other. Placing elements on a grid is an effective way to create a professional layout. Graphics and text can be aligned to the left, right, or centered. Use a consistent alignment style and align the elements of the infographic with each other.
7. Use grouping to show relationships. When you place elements in a group, readers will assume there is a relationship between the elements. Some ways to group elements are to put them in close proximity; use objects that are similar in size, shape and color; and draw a boundary around the objects. The reverse is also true. Avoid visual grouping of elements that are not related.
Make It Visually Efficient
8. Only include necessary content. To extract accurate information from your infographic, learners need as few distractions as possible. Avoid adding irrelevant and unnecessary visual information. As the designer, you get to choose what to include and what to exclude. Only include the necessary content.
9. Stick with two-dimensional infographics. When it comes to designing graphs, a third dimension is unnecessary unless the third dimension represents a value. Furthermore, when software applications like Excel add a third dimension, it can distort the elements and lead to inaccurate readings. In the 3D bar chart below, the bar heights appear to be inaccurate due to the 3D interpretation.
10. Select colors that can be easily perceived. Choose colors that are easy to distinguish. Use the color wheel to make sure they are sufficiently separated from each other.
11. Design for universal access. For color-blind users, choose shades and tints of a color to differentiate information, rather than using color alone. Labels also help. For those with other visual impairments, use maximum contrast throughout. In general, place dark text on a light background.
12. Choose a clean, legible font. The titles, labels and explanations in an infographic can be key to understanding it. Therefore, choose fonts where the letters are easy to discriminate from each other and easy to read. Note: paragraphs of text are easier to read when they are left-justified.
13. Increase the signal and reduce the noise. In any communication, there is a signal-to-noise ratio. The signal is your message and the noise is the unnecessary information in your visual. Avoid visual elements that distract from the signal, like a large logo, unnecessary pictures or superfluous text.
14. Keep the background in the background. Make the background solid or less prominent so that it contributes but doesn’t overtake the most salient information in the foreground. For graphs, use a light color scale and thin lines so that it is functional, but it appears to be in the background.
Make it Meaningful
15. Use color in a meaningful way. Color is a visual cue that we assume has a meaning. Use a simple palette to avoid the confusion learners experience when trying to understand the meaning of different colors when there is none. Again, don’t rely on color alone to contrast elements in your infographic.
16. Place elements in a logical order. Establish a structure and arrangement of elements that will enhance the meaning of the infographic. For example, if a diagram has numbered parts, place the numbers in an order that is natural to how the audience reads (top to bottom and left to right in Western cultures). If you are working with a bar graph, arrange the data from smallest to largest or the reverse, if it makes sense.
17. Make the numbers easy to understand. Most infographics will be better understood when you round the numbers and remove the decimal places. Don’t ask the audience to do any math or conversions. Do it for them.
18. Stick with conventions. There are many icons and symbols that are familiar to a visually literate audience. When you use conventional elements, such as common chart types, agreed-upon icons and accurate colors for objects, you speed up processing because the reader doesn’t have to stop and translate your design.
19. Make comparisons easy. If you want users to compare data in a graph, use the same color for each category of data. If the comparison is between two categories of data, then use a second color for the second category. Single bar charts with different colors for every bar are confusing.
20. Use a scale that starts with zero. Readers may misinterpret data that isn’t represented accurately. Be precise. When using graphs, place them on a scale that starts at zero.
21. Avoid pie charts if you want to represent accurate data. Many people use pie charts incorrectly. They are meant to show parts of a whole. People aren’t good at estimating area and angles, which makes it difficult to compare the size of the slices in a pie chart with each other. Can you order the wedges in the graphic below from smallest to largest?
Visual representations are a proven way to make data and abstractions concrete. They can also mislead and confuse viewers when they are poorly designed. If you take the time to analyze, reflect and plan, your infographic design skills will naturally improve.
Cairo, A. The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization. New Riders, 2012.
Friel, Susan N., et al. “Making Sense of Graphs: Critical Factors Influencing Comprehension and Instructional Implications.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, vol. 32, no. 2, 2001, pp. 124–158.
J. Izard, A. Hartzler, D.I. Avery, C. Shih, B.L. Dalkin, J.L. Gore, User-centered design of quality of life reports for clinical care of patients with prostate cancer, Surgery 155 (2014) 789–796.
J. Izard, A. Hartzler, D.I. Avery, C. Shih, B.L. Dalkin, J.L. Gore, Relevance of graph literacy in the development of patient-centered communication tools. Patient Education and Counseling, 99(3), March 2016, 448-454.
Kosslyn, S. Elements of Graph Design. W.H. Friedman and Company, 1993.
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