“It is by the aid of statistics that law in the social sphere cbe ascertained and codified.”
– Florence Nightingale
Infographics are visual graphic presentations of data, information or knowledge intended to display that information clearly and quickly. They help understanding because of their ability to help us see patterns and trends more easily. The most dramatic example of the use of infographics I can think of was by Florence Nightingale. By creating detailed graphs of the statistics of wounded soldiers in the Crimean War, Nightingale was able to convince the British military of the need for more sanitary hospital conditions and better living conditions for soldiers. Her work laid the foundation for professional and modern nursing.
Whether it is a map, diagram, chart or table, the conversion of larger concepts or dry statistics into legible “images” of typography with shapes, symbols, colours or aligning arrows, graphics and organizing rules (lines) is a sophisticated and subtle art form. Recently, free tools to convert data into infographics have become readily available. However, these auto-pilot programs often miss the important point of what really needs to be communicated. Solutions might look slick and organized, but upon further inspection, the real message is often lost. The most important idea is to understand that infographics need to be read easily to be understood. Neat and tidy alignments are only part of good design. Titles and explanations need to be in sync with labels and captions. Infographics should tell stories and have a real purpose. We have created work-plan diagrams, icons, system maps, signage systems and detailed systems of tables, charts and graphs for a range of clients in different sectors.
1. We don’t read charts in a predetermined sequence.
Unlike a written report where readers know to start at the top left and read across and down, with a chart or graphic, a reader’s eyes flit from title, key, plotted statistics, axes, explanations and summaries etc.
Solution: Use hierarchies, clear differences, editing and layout to guide the reader. Predictable design will make it easier to understand.
2. Readers are attracted to different emphatic signals.
Large titles or headlines, a peak or valley in a chart, bright colours, density of graphics, intersection points, outliers, graphics, and arrows all attract the eye.
Solution: Align visual emphasis with the key message to be communicated. Use restraint and editing to make the most important information easy to understand.
3. We can only see and understand a limited number of things at once.
More than eight colours, or too many variables will cause overwhelm or confusion
Solution: Judiciously edit every element. Use only the correct amount of info, no more. Decorative shadings or 3D effects just add clutter and confusion.
4. Readers will seek meaning and try to make connections.
Patterns, groupings, alignments, and similarities will send messages about relationships.
Solution: Be very conscious of visual cues that cause connections or links. Do not make mistaken, unimportant or irrelevant connections by colour, clusters, proximity or positions.
5. Conventions and traditions are powerful forces in reading and understanding.
We read from left to right, top to bottom. We understand importance through position such as high and low or top to bottom. We use left to right to understand sequence. Colour understandings too, are often based on a general acceptance of beliefs. Red means hot, active or alarm, blue means cool or established, green means safe or good. Light shades are empty, darker shades often mean full or dense. A gradient implies progress.
Solution: Embrace these conventions, flouting them may cause confusion. A good infographic should help the reader make a “short cut”. A bad infographic will make a reader parse information more than necessary. Good charts coalesce complex data into clear ideas.
These observations about how we read infographics come from “Good Charts: The Harvard Business Review Guide to Data Visualization” by Scott Berinato
The full integration of writing and design of infographics is essential. From the title of a table or a chart, to explanations, summaries and other details, the writer and graphic designer must work with the same goal and common understandings.
Titles of infographics should help to tell the story. Avoid generic or “so what?” titles. Write informative titles with smaller subtitles to give more detail if necessary.
Captions can be a very important device to draw readers in, give extra information and explain diagrams, or charts in more detail. Captions should give more than just obvious label information.
A brief summation of a series of infographics or a report is an important tool when creating effective communication design. Whether it is “this information at-a-glance”, “Executive Summary” or “How to read this report”, a consolidated high-level outline and synopsis of information is nearly always welcome.
Writing at-a-glance texts
Explanatory texts should use titles and brief descriptions to “chunk” important takeaways to create a precise encapsulation of the salient points. User friendly, conversational titles should help the reader navigate. Such as:
Some at-a-glance sections might include:
Another explanatory text could be a “Frequently Asked Questions” list – FAQs – To create this, use team and user input and critical thinking to determine probable reader enquiries. The questions should be written in a direct and friendly manner. They can cue readers to next steps or point out missed details.
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