Effective Infographics: Telling Stories in the Technical Communication Context

The word infographic is a portmanteau created by jamming together two words: information that you want to convey in a graphic form. You might be tempted to think of this in terms of bar graphs and similar representations of numbers, but that obscures an important distinction. Bar graphs and their cousins (line graphs, pie charts, etc.) are more properly referred to as data graphics: they primarily present numbers, and although well-designed ones also help viewers understand the meaning of those numbers, they’re still highly abstract and leave interpretation of those numbers to the viewer. In contrast, an infographic informs—it helps the viewer to translate raw data into meaningful information, and the accuracy of the data is less important than the accuracy of the message.

Although infographics frequently include one or more data graphics, the presence of data is not required. The primary goal of an infographic is to convey information, whether in the form of numbers, a map that shows spatial relationships among items, a diagram that conveys the relationships among the parts of a whole, a flowchart or network diagram that reveals the pathways between concepts (as in the case of a mind-map diagram), or an assembly guide that tells the viewer how all the parts fit together to create a functional whole. Infographics may be relatively literal, as in the case of a geographic map that accurately portrays the terrain, or more metaphorical, in the sense of simplified directions (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Infographics may be (a) highly literal, as in this Google Maps satellite view of the walking directions from Grand Central Station to Madison Square Garden; (b) somewhat literal, as in this Google maps street map of the same course; or (c) highly abstract, as in this diagrammatic illustration of the same walking path. Note that an even more literal version of (a) would be a series of Google street view images.

The key differentiator between infographics and traditional data graphics is that infographics tell a story, often in an attempt to persuade or teach. To do so, they may integrate large chunks of text with visually interesting graphic elements that support that text. Technical communicators will recognize this in the form of product diagrams that inventory the parts of a product (Figure 2a), or procedural graphics that show how to accomplish a process by moving stepwise through a product’s user interface within a single diagram (Figure 2b).

 

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Figure 2. Examples of infographics that show (a) the layout of the interface tools provided by a product and (b) how to navigate through a product’s interface using those tools. Source: Hart (2010).

If you’re primarily a writer, you’re probably most comfortable with words. But infographics offer a powerful advantage over lonely words: We humans are intensely visual creatures, and a story told visually, in combination with text, is often more compelling than alternative formats. Images have the ability to invoke emotions in ways that cold, hard words and facts often fail to accomplish. This means that infographics, even the ones that have cold, hard facts at their core, resemble marketing more closely than they do science, and depend more on classical techniques of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) than on more abstract appeals to reason. This combination of factors accounts, at least in part, for the continuing popularity of comic books and graphic novels  nearly two centuries after their invention as a distinct medium. Indeed, it helps if you think of infographics as resembling little comic books or the daily cartoons that appear in newspapers rather than traditional documentation: the visual aspects dominate, to the extent that words may be largely unnecessary in some cases.

The design of an effective infographic begins with a careful consideration of the knowledge, idea, or feeling that you want to convey—in short, on your message. Having chosen the message, it’s then necessary to understand the graphical tools you can use to convey that message, and the rhetorical tools you can use to tell an effective story.

Characteristics of Infographics

Different types of infographics have different required image characteristics. Using the categories that I started this article with as examples, consider the following characteristics:

  • Numbers (data graphics): Numerical data must be conveyed clearly and without distortion; that is, the image must support accurate interpretation and discourage inaccurate interpretations. The work of Edward Tufte (1983, 1990) provides clear guidelines on how to accomplish this.
  • Geographical maps and network diagrams: Similarities and differences among items must be conveyed so as to identify like items (e.g., bodies of water) and boundaries between items (e.g., between a city and the surrounding countryside). Richard Saul Wurman (1989, 2001) has done excellent work in this field and has pioneered many areas of infographic design.
  • Diagrams: Diagrams clearly convey physical relationships among the parts of a whole. Thus, like a map, the diagram must distinguish between like and not-like, while communicating how the parts fit together spatially.
  • Flowcharts: These infographics reveals the pathways between stages in a process, including the decision points. Therefore flowcharts must clearly indicate both the sequence and when the user will diverge from that sequence. Figure 3a provides a highly simplified example based on classifying living organisms.
  • Assembly guides: Because the goal is to show viewers how all the parts fit together spatially to assemble a functional whole, the guide must also communicate the sequences; some parts cannot be attached until other parts are already in place. Good examples include the assembly guides that accompany Lego kits and Ikea furniture.
  • Literal forms: If an infographic resembles a real-world object, it must capture the essential parts of that object that would be visible in the real world. I’ve included two references on the degrees of abstraction possible or desirable for a given infographic (Hart 2006, 2007a). David Macaulay provides many examples in his “how things work” books.
  • Metaphorical forms: Because metaphorical infographics define the relationships among concepts, they must clearly separate the concepts into logical groups and must organize the concepts within and between these groups. Figure 3b provides an example of how ideas can be grouped and related.

Other types of infographic have different narrative (story) or rhetorical (persuasive) characteristics. These examples illustrate the importance of visually labeling parts of the infographic to communicate the concepts of like and not-like, spatial relationships, movement through the image, and so on. Jacques Bertin (1983) provides the classic reference on this subject, but in the form of a large and sometimes complex book; I’ve provided a link to a much shorter and more accessible discussion of this topic at the end of this article (Hart 2007b).

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Figure 3: Effective infographics show (a) a flowchart that expresses the relationships between various living organisms in a hierarchical manner and (b) the relationships between various conceptual characteristics. (A more visually compelling version would include images of the superheroes themselves.)

Effective infographics must utilize a visual “vocabulary” that viewers understand. This vocabulary can be learned, as in the case of road signs and computer icons that are only effective because we have learned their meanings; most are not intuitively obvious. For example, we learn that green road signs convey location information, whereas black and white signs convey speed limits. Similarly, young users of modern software may have never seen a floppy disk, yet they learn to recognize this icon as the one you click to save your document. (With the explosive growth of cell-phone photography, the standard camera icon used to represent this functionality may undergo a similar loss of recognition, particularly in developing countries where cell phones are ubiquitous and cameras are rare.) Other images have powerful associations that are only apparent when you know the history of what the image represents, such as understanding that mushroom clouds represent a nuclear horror. The vocabulary can also be obvious without explicit teaching, such as using the image of an ice cream cone or cake or pie to represent the concept of “dessert”.

In classroom uses of infographics, where viewers expect to be required to exert some effort to learn, it is probably acceptable to use images whose meaning must be learned. In other contexts, such as the infographics made famous by USA Today, viewers expect images to be instantly recognizable, and the more you make them work to decipher an image, the more likely it is that you’ll fail to communicate; only highly motivated viewers will make the effort. Thus, crafting effective infographics is no different from other forms of technical communication: it requires considerable knowledge of your audience. Audience knowledge enables you to decide which images they will understand without your help, which images require some clarification to ensure that they receive the correct meaning from among several possibilities, and which images will require learning new visual conventions before they can be used (e.g., the icons in a program’s toolbar). When you’re not sure, use words judiciously to focus viewers on the correct meaning.

If you come from a traditional print background, where color was too expensive to use routinely, you may need to remind yourself to use color liberally. If you’ve spent most of your career working with scientists, who tend to follow Tufte’s guideline about minimizing color and using only what’s necessary to communicate, you may need to learn to overcome the conditioning to emphasize black and white infographics. Color is more visually attractive, and in choosing attractive, I remind you that the word is not just about esthetics; it is about attracting the viewer’s attention. With many traditional forms of data graphics, you can safely assume that your audience will be required to use the graphic, making esthetics largely irrelevant. But with infographics, you can’t convey your message until you attract the viewer’s attention, and color draws the eye.

Color is particularly useful in digital media, since there’s no additional cost for color, as there is in printed material. John McWade, author and designer of the superb Before&After magazine and associated books, provides some of the best advice anywhere on how to design information that is both visually attractive and highly effective at communicating a message.

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Figure 4. Use combinations of color and shape to ensure that meanings remain clear. (Beer image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons .)

When you prepare color materials (print or digital), remember that some people are color blind. Red–green colorblindness is the most common form, particularly among men, so when you choose these colors to communicate important distinctions, provide additional clues to help red–green colorblind viewers distinguish between the two meanings. For example, choose colors that differ both in hue (red vs. green) and value (darkness) print a copy on a black and white laser printer to confirm that the distinction is visible. Similarly, use differences in shape to further support this distinction; for example, in a flowchart, red colors that indicate endpoints or “stop and retrace your steps” points could be indicated with a stop sign shape (an octagon), decision points can be indicated using the triangular yield sign, and yes and no results could be indicated with a checkmark and an ´, respectively (Figure 4). Note that in the latter case, using thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons is likely to work for a primarily North American and British commonwealth audience but not for a Mediterranean audience, for whom thumbs up is the equivalent of a raised middle finger to the North American and commonwealth audience.

For online or onscreen infographics, consider one or more of the following to enhance effectiveness:

  • Provide hover text (text that appears when the viewer holds the mouse cursor above the image)
  • Include Alt tags text that will be displayed if the image cannot be displayed, such as by screen-reader software for the visually impaired)
  • Create links to a spoken narration that describes the image. Your narrator should have an appropriate voice: for example, they should be warmly reassuring, excited and motivational, or scared and cautionary, depending on the nature of the message you’re conveying.

Telling a story

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Figure 5. Ownership of pet dogs, cats, and birds in the U.S. in 2011. Each icon represents approximately 4 million pets.

Thus far, my descriptions have been largely theoretical, so let’s consider an actual example: pet ownership in the United States. Based on 2011 statistics from the American Veterinary Medicine Association, 43.3 million U.S. households owned dogs, 36.1 million owned cats, and 3.7 million owned birds. Although these raw numbers may appeal to our inner statistician, the information can be presented more effectively for most audiences as a visual image (Figure 5).

I’ve deliberately chosen cute photos to emphasize the positive side of pet ownership. However, I could just as easily have shown photographs of starving strays and estimates of their population to illustrate the problem of pet abandonment, or images of pets killed by cars accompanied by accident statistics to illustrate the irresponsibility of leaving pets free to wander in high-traffic areas. Every picture tells a story, and although the numbers would change for each of these three stories, the real difference from the viewer’s perspective would be the impact of the images and the story they tell. Maria Popova provides excellent examples by people who are more competent designers than I am on the “Brain Pickings” website. Tara Hornor provides several good examples in her article 5 Ways to Make Data Visually Interesting, and suggestions on how to implement these methods in web design.

Different infographic types have different requirements in terms of their story characteristics. Again, using the examples I started this article with:

  • Numbers (data graphics): At least in their traditional forms in scientific journals and business reports, data graphics do not inherently tell a story. Thus, they are typically accompanied by words (often large numbers of words) that build a narrative about how the data in each part of the graphic support each of the author’s conclusions about the data.
  • Geographical maps and network diagrams: Because these images don’t tell a story themselves, they require accompanying text that leads the reader through the physical or metaphysical landscape. Consider, for example, the maps at the start of each book in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or George Martin’s Game of Thrones series (or in the author’s words, “A Song of Ice and Fire”): the maps provide context for the story, and create a sense of a real world, but do not themselves tell the story. Contrast this with Edward Tufte’s famous poster of Napoleon’s march on Moscow or modern use of GPS features on cell phones for geotagging locations of interest.
  • Physical diagrams: In some cases, such as the aforementioned Lego and Ikea assembly manuals, these infographics require no supporting text, while other forms of graphic require considerable support. As I note in my article on integrating text with graphics (Hart 2010), various techniques can be used to guide the reader through the story, such as sequencing (left to right or top to bottom) and numbering.
  • Flowcharts or network diagrams: Sequence is also important in these diagrams because their goal is to guide the viewer through a decision process or through the relationships among the parts of a physical or conceptual network. Rather than leaving the viewer to determine their own order, you should carefully consider the sequence that will most effectively support the user’s needs—or that will tell the specific story you want viewers to hear. For example, if you understand that the user of a flowchart wants to reach the correct decision by reading the fewest possible boxes in the chart, you’ll understand that (i) steps must be as clearly distinct as possible to minimize the choice of wrong branches and (ii) each decision point should maximize the number of incorrect possibilities that are eliminated by each decision.
  • Assembly guides: Where assembly needs are more complex than Lego or Ikea, you may need to borrow an approach from comic books and tell an actual story—the narrative of how to assemble the product most efficiently. Scott McLoud (1993) provides many insights into how to assemble such stories.
  • Literal forms of infographic tell a story defined by the chronological sequence of events. Consider, for example, an animated GIF graphic, such as one from Gizmodo that shows how a key works in a standard lock. More abstract or metaphorical forms of infographic (such as flowcharts) tell the story by assembling the thought process about a subject into stages that lead one through the logical steps required to reach a conclusion or understand a complex concept.

Other types of infographic will have different story or rhetorical characteristics. For example, Figure 6 shows how one might describe the flow of aluminum from ore to final product in a major aluminum-producing region of North America. Note that the choice of wording emphasizes the environmentally friendly aspects of aluminum, which is a defensible choice, without acknowledging the downside of these flows (e.g., strip-mining in the areas where ore is produced, flooding of aboriginal lands in Quebec to produce hydroelectric reservoirs, production of greenhouse-effect gases during transportation of products)—an equally defensible, though less honest, choice.

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Figure 6. The flows of aluminum ore (bauxite) into the province of Quebec, of the electricity that powers its conversion into metal at one key location, and of products to suitable markets. Not shown: the return flow via (for example) recycling of aluminum cans. (Map courtesy of Google Maps.)

Other types of infographic will have different story or rhetorical characteristics. For example, Figure 6 shows how one might describe the flow of aluminum from ore to final product in a major aluminum-producing region of North America. Note that the choice of wording emphasizes the environmentally friendly aspects of aluminum, which is a defensible choice, without acknowledging the downside of these flows (e.g., strip-mining in the areas where ore is produced, flooding of aboriginal lands in Quebec to produce hydroelectric reservoirs, production of greenhouse-effect gases during transportation of products)—an equally defensible, though less honest, choice.

Persuasion in Effective Infographics

If the goal of an infographic goes beyond the mere presentation of information, to persuade the viewer to adopt a belief, make a decision, or perform some action, consider the traditional tools of Aristotle’s rhetoric. These include:

  • Logos, an appeal to reason or logic: In this context, consider how to present numerical data or an assembly of facts (and their sources) to persuade viewers that your argument is credible.
  • Pathos, an appeal to emotions: consider the different emotional impacts of the pet images that I described earlier, and choose images that persuade by evoking the appropriate emotion.
  • Ethos, an appeal based on the character (thus, the perceived ethics and trustworthiness of the spokesman): In such cases, the goal is to use a trusted person or organization as the source of the information to persuade the viewer that the information can be trusted.

The Romans elaborated on Aristotelian rhetoric through additional persuasive strategies. Among the most relevant for creating effective infographics:

  • Codifying certain strategies for conveying information. For example, if you were creating a standard template for assembly manuals, you might start with a context statement (the goal of the assembly), a list of parts and tools required before you begin, cautionary notes (e.g., work in a well-ventilated room), the steps in the assembly, and finally, a discussion of how the assembler will know they succeeded, and a troubleshooting section if they didn’t. (The same approach, with appropriate modifications, can be used to document software procedures.)
  • Developing strategies to counter contrary opinions. For example, a Roman debate might have transpired in the following course: an introduction that describes the subject of the debate; a statement of your opinion; an outline of the major points that support that opinion, including proof of each point; identification and refutation of contrary arguments; and a conclusion that summarizes the case you made, builds sympathy for your cause, and creates antipathy or distrust of your opponent’s case. This could be used to create infographics (for example) to promote legislation to dramatically increase the fuel efficiency of the North American vehicle fleet.
  • Choosing an appropriate style. For example, clarity may be important when you’re trying to avoid giving the impression that you’re concealing anything, in dramatic contrast to deliberate efforts to obscure the details if the infographic presents an insurance policy or a cell phone plan. A plain style is more appropriate when you’re trying to speak to the masses, whereas a more ornate and possibly even more pedantic style may be required when you’re trying to reach an academic audience. Your delivery of the information is another crucial aspect of the style used in the infographic: passionate if you’re advocating a cause, restrained if you’re trying to only present the facts and let the viewer decide, humorous if your goal is to entertain or set the viewer at ease, or serious if you’re trying to convey the gravity of a problem.
  • Appealing to memory. An example would be using images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center to invoke memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and justify enhanced security measures at airports.

Ethics suggests that the images we convey in an infographic must be accurate and evenhanded, but both criteria may be waived in certain circumstances. For example, to present the complex global warming issue to a general audience that may not understand the complexity of the underlying science, your infographic may need to simplify the details so that the broad details of the problem can be easily grasped. Trying to explain the complexity of the underlying details is best left to infographics used in efforts to persuade experts who see these details as proof that you are considering all aspects of the problem, weighing the evidence, and providing a judgment based on this evidence, rather than non-experts who see this only as confusion. Thus, it’s perhaps more correct to suggest that from an ethical perspective, the messages you convey in an infographic must be broadly correct and honest, rather than precise. In short, the goal of an infographic can legitimately be to simplify a complex concept—without oversimplifying to the point that you are no longer presenting the truth. A good compromise between clarity and complexity would be to provide links to additional sources so that viewers who have accepted the basics of your story can learn more, or can at least confirm the details.

Conclusions

Although you might think of USA Today or the evening TV news when you think of infographics, the subject is much deeper and broader. I’ve provided many references to help you explore the topic further. But you should also think beyond the conventional notion of an infographic: a static image on a printed page. Two horizons include using sound in online images to support the blind (i.e., the use of sound to support what was formerly purely visual information), and using animation to create dynamic visuals (such as my reference to the animated image of how a key works. Imagine how useful these techniques would be in technical communication. For example, assembly manuals presented on a tablet computer such as an iPad could include animations to show how parts move together during assembly and visual indicators of successful and failed assemblies, and individual steps could be accompanied by spoken descriptions for steps when all your attention must be focused on what your hands are doing rather than on the instructions on the tablet. Wikipedia provides a nice assortment of online tools and social media sites that can be used to create effective infographics, including the Visual.ly site for data graphics. Infographics hold enormous power for storytelling, and we’re only beginning to explore their possibilities for effective technical communication.

References

  • Bertin, J. 1983. Semiology of graphics. Diagrams, networks, maps. (Translated from the original 1973 French version by W.J. Berg.) University of Wisconsin Press, 456 p.
  • Hart, G. 2006. Abstraction: making the complex easier to understand. Intercom November 2006:36–37, 40. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2006/abstraction.htm>
  • Hart, G. 2007a. Combining words and pictures: degrees of abstraction. Intercom January 2007:38–39, 42. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2007/words-plus-pictures.htm>
  • Hart, G. 2007b. Some thoughts on visual vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric. Intercom May 2007:36–38. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2007/visual.htm>
  • Hart, G. 2010. Integrating text with graphics in procedures. Intercom December 2010:17–19. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2010/integrating.html>
  • Macaulay, D. 1988. The way things work. Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books, 384 p.
  • McCloud, S. 1993. Understanding comics: the invisible art. Kitchen Sink Press, 216 p.
  • Tufte, E. 1983. The visual display of quantitative information. Graphics Press, 197 p.
  • Tufte, E. 1990. Envisioning information. Graphics Press, 126 p.
  • Wurman, R.S. 1989. Information anxiety. Doubleday & Co. Inc., 356 p..
  • Wurman, R.S. 2001. Information anxiety 2. Que Books, 308 p.
Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

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