Data visualisation

Infographics: the answer to information overload?

They’ve been called the language of the internet, visual essays or data visualisations, and they’re spreading rapidly.

Thanks to information overload and the advent of digital and mobile technology, more and more readers these days ‘skim the surface’ rather than dive into narrative. Writers and designers are being challenged to cut down on unwieldy text and use their skills to tell visual stories that are easily and quickly understood.

That’s why, in the age of big data, infographics have truly come of age. Writing and designing sustainability reports for Lion, one of Australasia’s leading food and beverage companies, gives us an opportunity to test our skills in this area. The reports are published as interactive pdfs on the company’s website and can be found at www.lionco.com.

What lessons have we learned?

1. It’s a collaborative exercise: Strategic thinking is as important as good design, so an effective infographic (there are plenty of bad ones) is a result of close collaboration between writer and designer.

2. The numbers must tell a story: A good infographic requires you to create a clear vision of the story behind the numbers. All good stories are built on a firm angle or idea, not just a topic (for example, tax-effective investments is a topic, 10 ways to save tax on your investments is an angle). Infographics must make sense of the numbers so the story they share is easily understood.

3. Show, don’t tell: Writers are often told to use the ‘show don’t tell’ technique to enable readers to experience the story through actions rather than words. In infographics, the ‘actions’ become visual. In the drafting process we revisit every element to see whether we can’t further ‘visualise’ data.

4. Observe the principles of good design: Infographics must be aesthetically pleasing, so your choice of fonts, colours, size, graphical devices and spatial relationships is critical.

5. Clarity is key: It’s vital to edit the superfluous so you present the most compelling data – in the least amount of space. The reader must be able to look at it and instantly know what it’s about.

Incidentally, Internet chatter and the self-styled specialists who have sprung up in recent times would have us believe that infographics are new. But they’ve been around for a long time.

Indeed, as The Guardian newspaper’s Show and Tell infographic site points out, German physician Fritz Kahn’s extraordinary poster, visualising the human body as a vast network of machines and industrial processes, was published in Stuttgart in 1926.

And The Table of Universal History, a visualised history of humankind from the creation of Adam and Eve to the then present day, goes back even further. It was published in Paris in 1858.

 


 

By Derryn Heilbuth