7 ways to build smarter infographics

Clarify. Avoid visual clichés. Hunt for stories in the data. A former Newsweek and AP graphics director offers tips for creating infographics your audiences will devour.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Let’s say you work for a health care organization and you’re looking to inform the public about the risks of eating disorders such as anorexia.

Hey, some clever person on your team says, how about an infographic with a picture of a skinny teenage girl looking in a mirror and seeing an overweight version of herself in the glass?

No, no, no, says Karl Gude, former director of information graphics at Newsweek and the Associated Press. He’ll show you at least 20 illustrations based on the same idea.

Gude offers his advice in the Ragan Training session, “How to engage your audience by creating buzz-worthy infographics.”

“If you’re going to use these visual clichés,” Gude says, “if your knee-jerk reaction is to spend all your money, all your resources and time and energy to do a hackneyed, old-hat message … you’re wasting your time, because nobody’s listening.”

How to engage your audience by creating buzz-worthy Infographics

In that case, how can you use the powerful infographics format in a way that grabs people’s attention? Here are some tips:

1. Make it a team effort.

Ideally, it takes a team to produce an infographic, says Gude. You should include a visual designer, a verbal content person, a programmer and an “information designer” who does research.

Unfortunately, the bosses at a lot of organizations don’t realize that. Some will say, “Anybody want to do the infographics?” When everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats, the bigwig tells someone, “You’re it.”

Trouble is, when it’s communicated that way, colleagues think cooperation is optional, Gude says. They brush off the poor sap who is left begging for help.

To make it work, the boss has to commit to creating visual options for your audiences. Your coffee-breathed leader must make clear to everyone: “We’re all going to be a part of this. So-and-so is going to be front-running them. And when they walk in, I want you to help them.”

2. Find stories in data.

What stories emerge from those tables of data the boss dropped on your desk? Hunt for trends in the data.

“This is where you’ve got go to buy your pith helmet and enjoy the hunt,” Gude says.

By all means, don’t just throw charts in front of people and say, “You figure it out.”

“Your infographics are supposed to make people feel smarter, not stupider,” Gude says. “If you’re not explaining stuff to them, you’re making them hate you, because you’ve just made them feel like a total idiot.”

3. Figure out your message.

There tend to be two types of infographics, Gude says. One is data- or information-driven, he says, as when a boss walks up and—boom!—drops a huge report on your desk, asking for an infographic to explain the Affordable Care Act. The other starts with a message—as in stopping anorexia and bulimia in girls—and you must to find data to support it.

Either way, focus. Ask yourself what you are trying to communicate and why.

“The narrower your message, the more audience reaction you’re going to have,” Gude says. “The broader your audience, the more ignored you’re going to be. Because everyone’s saying the same thing, like, ‘Tanning salons kill.’ ‘Smoking causes cancer.’ Who cares?”

4. Don’t dumb it down.

If you’re doing an infographic of the Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator in Switzerland, the science isn’t simple. Your infographic shouldn’t dumb things down, either.

“We don’t talk about simplifying the message,” Gude says. “We talk about clarifying the message.”

5. Know your audience.

Whom are you trying to reach—teenagers? Their parents? You should communicate very differently to each audience.

“So you have to really discuss what’s relevant to those audiences and what will engage them if you get them to spend five seconds with your graphics,” Gude says.

6. Offer better alternatives to control freaks.

You know the type of executive: The control freak who tells the logo designer, “I want every branch of the company in the logo. We have six branches, and every one has to be in the logo.”

Come on, Nike just has a swoosh, Gude counters. A better way to persuade is to offer better alternatives.

7. Write meaningful headlines.

Gude tells of the 100th-anniversary graphic he designed about how the Statue of Liberty was built and restored. It was full of interesting history and facts. But an editor headlined it, “The Majestic Lady Liberty.”

“Come on,” Gude says. “I hate headlines like that. It’s fluff.”

Make them meaningful.


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