These days, infographics are becoming ubiquitous. Some infographics have become famous and are used by millions over several years (like the USDA MyPlate poster) while others are just normal print journalism passing by as daily news (you can peruse these examples for some recent newsy infographics).
There is a long history of infographics and some could argue that they have been around for thousands of years. As we understand them today, however, the modern infographic took early shape in the 1800s. Probably the most famous infographic of all time, in fact, is Charles Minard’s graphic on Napoleon’s March of Russia.
Designed in 1861, this complex infographic plots multiple variables of data: the size of Napoleon’s army; it’s location on a two-dimensional space; the direction the army moved over time; and the temperature over several dates in varying locations as the army retreated from Moscow. Some have argued that Minard’s graphic may be the best statistical graphic ever created. (Don’t think it looks so complicated? Try taking six sets of data and showing them in one linear and collective image. Harder than you’d think!)
But besides it standing as a groundbreaking form of visualized data in the 19th century, what makes Minard’s infographic so compelling? The first reason, of course, is its complexity. Edward Tufte has suggested that all good information designs provide a macro (overall, big-picture perspective) and a micro (close-up detailed perspective) reading of a given situation; viewers can stare at this poster for several minutes (perhaps even hours) and make connections between dates, times, locations, deaths, temperatures, failures, and so forth. At the surface, there is an intriguing “shrinking” of Napoleon’s army. In the minutia, there is a complex set of data. The second (and probably more important) reason Minard’s graphic is so compelling, though, is because it tells a story. As viewers soak in what the visualized information is telling them, they are learning what the army went through, what may have caused casualties, what happened over time, where they were, and even if they were winning the battle against their opponent. There is, in other words, a framed narrative exhibited through visual ambiguity. The details are all there, but the viewer is required to interpret a story from beginning to end. Comic artist and author Scott McCloud suggested that this is one of the most important ways of communicating ideas: give visual pieces of a puzzle and let viewers interpret the rest (his example is of two scenes in a comic strip, where a character holds a knife to another character in one frame and in the next frame, a scream implies death; the viewer is required to mentally fill in the gory details that happen between frames). The power of infographics comes in complex details coupled with opportunity for storytelling.
As infographics have become a preferred method for communicating data, we have seen a wide range in the quality of them (some lose all credibility because of simplicity, bad design, or skewed data). However, the more complex they are and the better the story they tell, the more effective they tend to be. Check out the interesting infographics below and recognize their complexity and storytelling. What questions are raised as you stare at the data? What does each infographic subtly say about culture, society, government, politics, and values? (You’ll probably need to click on each image to see it in full-scale). If you stare at the graphics long enough, you’ll start to interpret events and draw conclusions about our society, the choices we make, what we value, and so forth. In other words, you’ll be able to put together a story that isn’t explicitly shown in the image itself.
The more data and complex the storytelling, the more likely the infographic will be able to compel us to think differently about something, whether the infographic is telling a news story (about, say, obesity) or is simply trying to provide useful information (about, say, how to buy shoes).
Certainly, infographics are cool. We like them because they are quick and easy to read. If done well, infographics are attractive and insightful and they make news look interesting. But to make infographics really work, they must match the medium in which they are presented. Authors of the book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling suggest that infographics are powerful because they do three things: they are fun to look at (“appeal”), they help us understand information easily and quickly (“comprehension”), and they help us remember things (“retention”). But a person creating an infographic needs to prioritize each of these.
For example, if a communicator wants to use an infographic for an academic and/or scientific audience, appeal isn’t as important as the other two; rather, comprehension is of highest priority (it needs to seem credible and accurate), followed by retention (so that other researchers can use it in the future), then appeal (if it’s too pretty, it might not seem as credible). Conversely, an infographic used for commercial marketing obviously will want to focus on appeal first (get their attention!), then retention (make them remember it long enough to buy it), and then comprehension (who cares how the iPhone works?). Or, if an infographic is used to sell a news story, appeal might come first (people need to want to read it before they will), then comprehension (it needs to make sense or they won’t read any more), followed by retention (it’s not like we remember news stories longer than a couple days anyway).
The fact is, infographics do work and they aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it is likely that infographics will become a regular part of communication instruction in colleges in the near future (many colleges already offer courses on them) because of their obvious use in journalism and marketing. In fact, as Adobe products and other desktop publishing software has almost become a household item in the last decade, infographics have virtually exploded into the communication sphere. If you run a small business or otherwise create information to inform and persuade others and you need to make your information more compelling, understandable, or just plain powerful, you might try giving an infographic a whirl. They are, after all, much more effective than just plain text.
As a final note, here’s a cool motion infographic about infographics that is worth spending two minutes of your life watching (if, for nothing else, to persuade you that infographics are, indeed, powerful…):