It’s one thing to design infographics, but it is quite another to be well-versed in the art of creating infographics that don’t suck. I know that whenever I see an infographic, I think it’s pretty awesome and am immediately impressed. I love that complex information can be brought to a reasonable comprehension level. Not being a designer myself, I tend to get wrapped up in the pretty colors and focus less on whether the infographic has done its job.
That’s why when I received The Best American Infographics 2013 in the mail, I was anxious to see what the experts had to say about creating infographics that not only didn’t suck, but were, in fact, the best of the year. Much to my delight, the book over-delivered. There were cool infographics (Mixology), impressive infographics (Paths Through NYC), humorous infographics (Quantified Self) and ones that straight-up blew my mind (Wind Map). Best of all, these delightful examples of data visualization helped me come up with a list of eight qualities that non-sucky infographics possess.
The next time you’re creating infographics for your clients, consider the following:
1. Reflect the subject matter in every design element.
The Breaking Bad Body Count infographic is clever in that every aspect of the design is a callback to the show’s focus on a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-overlord. This graphic, which recounts the death toll in the first 54 episodes of the show, uses a chemistry-like compound formula to tell the reader not only who died, but also how, when and by whom. Underneath the figure (human, pink bear, turtle) and name, readers learn what season the death occurred (S followed by a subscript of 1-5), the cause of death (Sh for shot, Ps for poisoned, etc.) and who was responsible (H for Hank, Ma for Multiple Assailants). The Periodic Table of Death guide and formula key help readers determine what the symbols in the death toll portion of the infographic mean. Pure brilliance!
2. If the concept is complex, make the design simple.
Wind Map was an ambitious infographic: It shows the what the wind is doing across the country in near-real time. That’s right. If you’re wondering whether it’s a good day to go surfing in the Pacific or just how brutal the Windy City’s namesake weather condition is before you leave the house, this infographic has you covered. Hell, they’ve gotten fan mail from scientists who track butterfly migration, so you know it’s going to work for whatever you need to know. But in order to keep from overwhelming viewers with an infographic that’s constantly in motion, the designers chose a muted, monochrome palette. They also were conscious of how much information they wanted to display. In the end, they created an infographic that’s easy to read and understand.
3. Give the design breathing room.
Popification of Top 40 shows how pop musichas dominated the Billboard Top 40 list for the past 20 years. Although there have been some ebbs and flows, overall dance, hard rock, country, R&B, rock and rap haven’t come close to snagging as many spots as pop hits have. Because the designer had limited space, however, he was careful to create a formation that would work within the restrictions. The winding chart goes from 1993 to 2012, and readers can easily follow the rise and fall of pop music hits from 40.9% in 1993 to 68.4% two decades later.
4. Supplement ambitious infographics with a straightforward key or legend.
Gay Rights in the U.S., State by State wanted to tell a story about how gay rights laws in America have evolved over time. The authors didn’t just stick to gay marriage. They included information on adoption by gay couples, employment, hate crimes and school bullying with respect to gay, lesbian and transgender people. This information was then broken out by region, by state and by particular rights. The colors (red for marriage, blue for adoption, green for employment, etc.) were also more or less intense to help tell the story. For example, dark red indicated marriage, medium red indicated civil unions, light red indicated domestic partnerships, stripes indicated prohibited or banned and clear indicated none or unclear. With so many colors and stats and states and overall information, the infographic could have been a complete mess. Instead, the designers created an infographic key or legend to help explain the set-up before throwing everything together into one colorful wheel.
5. Use the design to tell the story.
And the Oscar Goes to…New York City is a fearless depiction of how people in New York City view the world map: NYC is both hugely important and the center of the world. I jest… The infographic here actually depicts how many Oscar-nominated films were shot in various locations. While New York City steals the show overall, California, the U.K./London, France/Paris and New England all give it a run for its money. The best part, however, is that the shape and size of each location gives the reader information without forcing them to dive in. Even from a distance, people understand that some places have more Oscar nominations than others. I don’t need to look closely to see that NYC-shot films have a good chance of taking home a little gold statue, but if I want to know more than that, I can look closely and see other locales that set the scene in some kick-ass movies. The authors here do a good job of creating an infographic where the design—not the text—is the real star.
6. Readability should be a prime focus, from type choice to graphic shape.
Mixology (Constitutions of Classic Cocktails) is probably one of my favorite infographics in the book. If I ever host a cocktail party, you can bet I’ll be using this as my companion guide. While the photos above likely don’t do it justice, this bartender’s best friend gives anyone the ability to craft 69 tasty alcoholic beverages with the correct ingredients, glassware and garnishes. Mixers are broken up into cordials, juices, sodas, condiments and miscellaneous items. Glassware is depicted so that a Collins glass is never again confused with a highball glass. Thin, colorful lines connect every part of the drink elements so that you know everything you need, right down to the ounces of bourbon in an Old-Fashioned. The zoom button helps, but the authors were also careful to pick legible typefaces and color code everything, without sacrificing the fun factor.
7. Images can speak louder than words.
Paths Through New York City proves that occasionally type is unnecessary. Based on tweets with locations tagged by the sender, the authors were able to develop a map of how people travel through NYC. By used a map and thick lines to indicate heavily-trotted paths, the reader gets a good idea of what the road less traveled means in the Big Apple. Here, based on the line thickness alone, you get a feel for where people are walking and where few people dare to wander. It’s easy to read while being super informative. After all, sometimes less really is more.
8. Have some fun.
Quantified Self is part behavioral study, part self-discovery. The author looks at how he spends his time (where he is, who he’s with, etc.) and how it affects his personality. He then went so far as to create a corporate report based off the infographic and the information he uncovered. In cases like this, it’s best not to take yourself too seriously, and the author does a great job of noting things like how servings of filtered coffee he drank in NYC from 2010-2011 (296) and how many “crises involving a tick” he had while in the Bay Area (1).
After seeing some of America’s best infographics, it’s hard not to be inspired. Whether you’re interested in tackling a topic like weaseling your way into first class seating or describing social media through the use of bacon, the world of infographics is your oyster. But remember: you want to make sure you’re creating infographics that don’t suck. For that, HOW is here to help out. On March 17, the talented E. Genevieve Williams shows designers how to craft infographics your clients and fans will drool over. With advice on everything from how to gather information to how to embellish a design, you’ll be a worthy contender for next year’s best-of list. Sign up for the Data Visualization course today!