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Data Designer: Why We Need To Take Back The Infographic

Data Designer: Why We Need To Take Back The Infographic
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Ashley Brenner, Creative Director at Imprint, discusses how graphics can change our understanding of information

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 17 february 2017

In the last few years, we seem to have lost control of a common definition of infographics. We’re seeing more graphical treatments of text, masquerading as infographics, yet fewer interpretive stories of data analysis. There are a number of reasons for this. The rise in visual communication tools, like emojis, Instagram and Snapchat have led to a proliferation of ways that people communicate what was once only written content. These communication tools are great, and are making everyone feel like an information-designer-lite.

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But the reality is, not everything that communicates information graphically is an infographic. And as the going definition of an infographic gets muddied and confused, it’s important to double back on how we, as designers, can better express information in an engaging and thoughtful way. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an infographic is worth a million.

In a world with so many “infographics” floating around, how can we use them to tell a story efficiently? How can we challenge ourselves to not just design for editorial, but to design for understanding? We need to question ourselves on what this medium adds and whether telling the story visually, and calling it an infographic, is elevating the content or merely a sparkly distraction from it.

Can the infographic stand on its own?

Creative teams work closely with their editorial counterparts to understand how design will complement the information being conveyed. However, when adopting an infographic, the image should be a storytelling tool in its own right. It should stand on its own without requiring clarifying introductions or companion text.

This may sound obvious, but looking at a range of infographics from the past few years shows that not everyone ascribes to this theory. For instance, a graphic representation of what happens when your drink Coca-Cola went viral in 2015, with many calling it an infographic. However, without the text, the illustration of the Coca-Cola can doesn’t describe anything in itself. In contrast, many news outlets including The Guardian have adopted infographics, such as this one explaining the relative cost of different government expenses. While the descriptions do explain the expenses, the color and size of each of the boxes provides the context for the reader so that even if the copy were removed, the proportional expenses would still be clear.

If The Guardian had taken the same approach that the Coca-Cola can designer did, we’d be looking at one large box surrounded by descriptions of each individual expense—which wouldn’t add any understanding for the reader.

Does design add content, and not just aesthetic?

Similarly, in an infographic from The New York Times, the effects of income and income-split on married people’s’ taxes is simply made understandable. The U-curve effect is clearer, and the interactivity layered on makes a complex topic — tax breaks and bonuses — clear and effective. While the information would have been the same if it were just explained, or the tax code formulas were offered, by showing it visually, the results are more staggering. In this format, the data is not only clearer, but it’s more effective.

Infographics like this one from the US Department of Commerce is very much in line with what we are used to seeing these days. The pressure to create infographics simply leads to giving text a graphical treatment. In this example (and many others) putting design on top of copy doesn’t make it clearer, it makes it more cluttered.

Is the information made clearer in this format?

All of this is not to say that data — even when it’s not necessarily complex — doesn’t benefit from a graphic treatment for increased engagement. Afterall, pictures and colors catch a reader’s eye more quickly than a statistic in the middle of a paragraph ever will. However, an infographic should not confuse a reader into wonderment with icons, illustrations, and varied type.

Instead, use design to carry a reader through a story. Bitcoin transactions are a highly complex process in which many intangibles work in concert and this infographic from Visual.ly offers a path for readers to understand the way this dark currency works. Much less confusing than if written textually.

Good designers and editorial teams know all of this. However, the pressure to lure readers, jazz up otherwise dull or complex information, and the ever-quickening race for viral content is leading to a rapid deterioration of what infographics should be. Search the term on Google, and more often than not, the images served back aren’t true infographics, but text with accompanying pretty pictures.

Infographics require more thought and effort to apply design thinking to make any communication stronger. And the value of offering a reader an easier and more beautiful understanding of information is the essence of great design work. So this year, designers should resolve to reinvent what infographics mean for storytelling.

Ashley Brenner is Creative Director at Imprint, a Sullivan content lab. Ashley is responsible for the creative vision—the look, tone and feel—for Imprint’s client programs. She is the 2014 winner of the Content Council Best Creative Designer Award. Her degree in journalism combined with 15 years experience in creating custom content programs at American Express Publishing, Hearst Magazines and Dow Jones, is key to how she leads an inspired creative team.

Images: Ashley Brenner, Imprint

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