I came to my firm, Market Strategies, as a devout believer in data visualization guru Edward Tufte’s strict design principles. I shunned chartjunk and the blasphemers who used it; I tried to keep my data density high and my data-ink-ratio higher. Requests would come in, especially for infographics, to “add some jazz,” “make it sexy” or “make it pop.”
I thought, how could people disrespect their data in such ways—dress it up in cartoony costumes and house it in statistically inaccurate or misleading graphs? That’s especially since I know how much care went into collecting and analyzing the data. Why not display the data with as much respect and care as they were shown as they were collected?
I’ve come to realize these requests, sprinkled with glittery descriptions, don’t come from a place of disrespect but from a desire to add context, human emotion and deeper meaning to abstract data. Another request we hear is to “bring the data to life,” which I think comes closer to the true objective. It’s a desire to connect the reader to the data; to help explain what the data mean and why people should care about it.
Though we strive to make data relevant to clients in our regular reporting, requests to “jazzify” are especially prevalent when we’re asked to design infographics. Often these requests come with slides pulled from a larger report deck. That’s a good starting point, but there are four steps to complete before producing an effective infographic:
- Identify client objectives and your audience. Our goal is to help clients make confident business decisions. Those objectives may be implied, but it doesn’t hurt to clarify what you hope to achieve with your infographic. Do you want to advertise the study, summarize the main findings for decision makers or simplify it for the masses?
- Discover and digest raw data/facts. This is usually done in the initial analysis and reporting phase, but whoever is conceptualizing the infographic should have a deep understanding of the data, deep enough that they can find meaning and connect the dots between individual study questions.
- Develop the story outline. Choose the facts that build your story and identify content supported by rich data. Unlike some visualization and reporting types where the reader is intended to arrive at their own conclusions after reviewing the data, infographics work best with a coherent narrative and strong viewpoint. They are stories told visually, not just a collection of random facts and slick images. Write the story out textually. Use full sentences, not just bullets. Make sure the story flows from one point to the next and isn’t just a jumble of facts. This is where all the facts come together to create meaning, to be woven together with human emotion. This takes a lot of work, but it is the difference between an ineffective infographic and an effective one. The information designer who has a better understanding of the project’s intent and background will have a greater opportunity to develop other visual elements or establish a graphic theme and, hence, deliver a better infographic.
- Allow time for design and communication. Often the best designs seem effortless, but that doesn’t mean they were quick and easy to develop. Plan ahead so the designer has time to build on your work. Expect at least some communication to clarify intent and details.
As an example, here’s an infographic that Matt Leachman, Market Strategies’ creative director, and I collaborated on to help clients understand how Millennials use social media: With respect to Mr. Tufte and his contemporaries, we’re moving towards an understanding that not all data visualizations serve the same purpose. Some are intended for rigorous statistical exploration, while others are built to entice and entertain. It’s our job to identify that purpose and design for it. But remember, when all is said and done, if the reader walks away dazzled only by the graphics, we’ve failed at our job—they should leave connected and energized by the message within.
Derrak Richard is a senior information designer at Market Strategies. A version of this article originally appeared on the Market Strategies blog.