What Makes a Good Infographic?

When did you first hear the word “infographic”?

The term seems to have been coined in around 1969, but as Google Trends shows it really only entered common usage after 2010 or so.

The term might be new, but the idea of using graphics to make data more digestible is an old one. John Grimwade starts his fantastic history of information design with cave painting. We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s true that you can’t really talk about infographics without going back to nineteenth century pioneers such as William Playfair, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Minard. The twentieth century saw infographics become a more inclusive discipline, as newspapers turned to visual displays for their readers, and the pioneering work of the Isotype foundation showed the potential for visual summaries of statistics to make data accessible to all.

The digital age has opened up huge potential for creating and sharing infographics, but what have we done with that power? The massive popularity of one particular style, the “tall” infographics so effectively mocked in this brilliant comic, has polarised opinion. To some, “infographic” has become a dirty word.

We think that’s a shame. There’s room in the world for different styles of infographic, designed to tell different types of story to different types of audience. But what makes for a really good one? It depends. To answer the question, it helps to break the world of infographics down into two types…

Democratising Data

On the other hand are the graphics which Stephen Few likes to dismiss as “infotainment”. These are characterised by flashier design, and usually feature much less complex data and analysis. They might be scorned by the data geeks, but these are the graphics that you’ll see forwarded on social media. What they lack in depth they make up for in engagement.

The Best Graphics

These two types of graphic are often pitched as style versus substance, but that’s not the real choice. The truth is that the best graphics manage both style and substance, and they do it by being really clear on what their key message is and who the intended audience for it is.

Don’t evaluate infographics in terms of style versus substance, but rather in terms of processing fluency (how easy it is to read and understand) and conceptual fluency (how interesting it is). If a graphic has great data but looks too complex to appeal to a general audience, then you need to find ways to make it more accessible.

“Graphical elegance is often found in simplicity of design and complexity of data.”

– Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

A good infographic is one that combines surface appeal with an interesting message to tell the right story to the right people.

If you feel you have a project we could help you with or simply want some inspiration, head on over to look at a few examples of recently commissioned works we’ve done here.

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