More than words: the art and science of infographics

FirstWord's Pump and Roll infographic for CNH Industrial

Infographics are the most effective medium for the mass of information available in the age of Big Data

The sheer volume of available data creates new challenges for showcasing vast or complicated narratives in an engaging way.

Striking visuals draw in eyes and views effectively, but are not sufficiently sophisticated to explain complex or weighty issues. Text, meanwhile, offers infinite space, but huge blocks of it on a page can be an instant reader turn-off.

Enter the infographic: the prime example of a medium that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual elements combine with minimal text to explain even complex subject matter effectively.

And science agrees. In a 2010 study into why understanding of health risks was better when graphics were used as well as text, Barbara M Miller and Brooke Barnett noted: “On their own, text and graphics are both useful yet imperfect methods for communication… combining text and graphics allows communicators to take advantage of each medium’s strengths and diminish each medium’s weaknesses.”

But that’s not to say they should – or indeed can – be used to illustrate just any story. Stef Bayley, former graphics editor of the Sunday Telegraph and FirstWord’s visuals specialist, who has 27 years’ industry experience, is adamant that substantial amounts of accurate and precise data are crucial to making a successful infographic.

He says: “Good infographics start with data. If you don’t have complete data, then it’s null and void.

“When I’m being briefed, I like to be in ‘design bondage’; I like it to be very restricted in terms of what the infographic can or can’t do. A graphic often has to sit alongside text and comply with something, in which case the data has to be good and interesting enough to support the argument.

“You want seven to nine key facts and figures, 10 if possible – and the process is the same as writing at the start; you have to do your research and find the facts, and then work out the best way of explaining them.

“And you don’t necessarily give the audience what the client thinks they want – you give them what they need. An important part of this is knowing where and who your audience is, and not force-feeding your reader.”

While words can be usefully vague when clarity on exact details is lacking, in graphics there is nowhere to hide. “You can’t guesstimate figures or distances – you need quantitative data, not qualitative,” Bayley says. “Bad data looks ugly, so visuals for visuals’ sake are never good.

“I try to follow Einstein’s words: to make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. We’re showing the words, the how and why – we make something that could be a photograph or some statistics into more than the sum of its parts.”

On favoured infographic formats, he says: “I love graphs, because they tell a story over time and then you get a narrative. And anything where there’s reams and reams of data.”

His favourite work for FirstWord to date includes CNH Industrial’s Pump and Roll water-breathing fire engine and a graphical look at banking in 2020 for Swiss banking software company Temenos that featured a robot.

He says: “When it’s a challenge for a client to make their content engaging, it’s great to be able to make something a bit more sexy and shareable out of whatever they have got.

“With the Temenos graphic on automation, it was a case of thinking out of the box for something that would engage the reader with the subject matter, and the robot was perfect. For CNH, it was great to produce a proper editorial-based infographic for the fire engine – it fitted well on the website and gave them something unique to promote, which is definitely the name of the game.

“We always say to clients that whatever the challenges of their content, there’s a way that we can make it visually stimulating for your audience.”

Paul Weston, a former newspaper graphic designer who now works mainly for engineering and energy companies, believes strongly that some concepts can only be fully understood if they are drawn and delivered visually, citing an infographic showing how a company performed a nuclear clean-up 65m below the surface in a shaft.

He says: “Infographics are at the intersection between story, analysis and creativity – the sweet spot is where the three of these overlap.

“An infographic is about information, but it’s really about delivering concepts and making very technical or difficult subjects into things that can be understood; making it so that viewers want to engage with it.

“A good infographic is beautiful and delivers its concept well; you’re not going to have to try too hard to understand it.”

Ciaran Hughes, Reuters’ European graphics editor, sees infographics as a precise art that distils complex narratives into something more understandable and clear.

He says: “I think what they do best is show you links, connections and patterns that you wouldn’t have been able to see in your head – and you retain more than you would if just reading text and data.

“All stories have starts, middles and ends but lots in between – infographics take you for a walk around them and lead people from one point to another. They let people find out things at their own pace, and then allow them to delve down and down and down, becoming more involved with the story than they would be with simply words.”

Can infographics ever fail? “Graphics don’t work when they are merely decorative and the design serves only to hide the paucity of information,” he says.

“But they have to be engaging and attractive. They have to make you want to look at them and reward you for continuing to do so as they continue to reveal information. The whole experience should be rewarding on all levels from start to finish.”

So if you’re struggling to create engaging content that resonates with your audience and beyond, infographics could well be the answer. Assuming, of course, that you have enough data and information for a designer to create something truly compelling and striking that adds value for the reader.

Five key design rules that the best infographics follow

Think infographics are just a random arrangement of text and pictures? Think again.

The best graphics follow some tried and tested design principles, governing relative size and display. Here are some of Stef Bayley’s key ones:

1 Seven, plus or minus two – the ideal number of elements or parts that an infographic should contain. This provides enough material to explain a story or issue without overwhelming or disorientating the reader.

2 The Golden Ratio – found throughout nature, art and architecture, this is the ideal relationship between two values, such as height to width, and approximates to 1:1.618. Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza both exhibit the Golden Ratio, as do Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Stradivarius violins.

3 Rule of thirds – this imagines an image cut into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Placing key elements of the graphic along these lines rather than simply centring them is thought to create more interest and overall energy.

4 Comparison – presenting information in such a way that readers can judge a relationship or pattern between two things that share common characteristics. So money comparisons should use the same currency and volumes the same unit of measurement. Visual comparison might also mean showing multiple variables in one graph or setting some data against benchmark values.

5 Use of icons – iconography is the simplistic representation of an idea or thing, making it easily digestible and understood. They are normally used as the simplest way possible to represent an idea and are not very detailed – road signs are a good real-world example. Icons are most effective for simple elements.