Infographics: Where To Begin?

As the newest blogger for the Data Insights blog, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ryan Morrill, and I am a senior data visualization specialist at Forrester. In that role, I’m responsible for creating insightful and engaging graphical stories by exploring the most effective ways to visually represent data and information. I’m really looking forward to sharing my thoughts and lessons learned about data visualization through this blog.

Infographics are popular —or at least the idea of them is popular — and everyone wants to know if, how, and when they should jump on board. Most of the questions I receive from Forrester clients about data visualization relate to "infographics": Should we be using them? How effective are they? What are infographics exactly? How do we make them ourselves?

Unfortunately, the term "infographic" is ambiguous and can refer to a wide range of data visualizations geared toward different purposes. Because of this ambiguity and their increasing popularity, we’re also seeing a cascade of bad examples — from data representation errors and distracting visual clutter to complicated spider-web graphics that are nearly impossible to dissect. But I find that the most common use of the term refers to overdesigned pieces that contain very little data and serve more of a marketing function than anything else. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to get lost. 

So, let’s take a step back and forget about the term "infographic." What is it we’re actually trying to achieve here? Well, we’re trying to convey information. More specifically, we’re trying to convey information in a way that allows our audience, in context, to process and engage with the information, find patterns or trends in the information, and generally absorb your message or story in the most effective way possible.

Instead of trying to mimic something trendy, I suggest you start by thinking about the two qualities that make great data visualizations: data-driven design and an engaging graphic. Simply put, the design elements — from color selections and font sizes to icons and layout — should only be in the graphic to help accurately emphasize the data. At the same time, the graphic should grab your audience's attention. This is the engagement factor. Rather than being a simple picture of all the data, a good visualization is a well-thought-out story or presentation that encourages your audience to interact with and digest the data. Engagement may seem elusive, but it’s usually the result of the energy the author puts in to trying to get their message across — by editing the data down and creating a logical, interesting flow or interface.

It’s important to realize that achieving both of these qualities will take more time, effort, and thought. In essence, if you’re interested in improving your graphics and think that creating infographics is the solution, I suggest you start by simply spending a bit more time thinking about your charts and figures: Who’s viewing them? What are you trying to say? What data is necessary to your story? What do the colors mean? How do the figures and text relate?

This is the first step, and it applies whether you are making a slide for your own presentation or you’re working with a design team to create a comprehensive graphical story. The more thought and time you put into figuring out the best way to present your information, the more effective your visualization will be.