08 May 2012

This is where I go crazy with infographics

While on a current project, I was asked to find opportunities to include infographics into the content mix. Being new to this whole infographics thing, I wondered if this print-medium artifact, which has really gotten popular this past year, really worked on screen from the usability perspective. I decided to do some research on Google to find out.
The result? Nothing. There were no studies made about web usability and infographics. Instead, there were lots of infographics about infographics. (Warning: Loud YouTube video). I still had no idea when to use infographics, or its place in a modern content strategy. So I had to dig some more.

Eventually, I found a satisfactory answer. Short version: Use infographics when it takes too many words explain things.

Long version? Let's take a look.

Use infographics when you're dealing with real, physical objects

The idea is simple: when describing a physical object, show a picture of it. The description of Solomon's Temple may have been inspired, but nothing beats showing its physical form, dimensions and colours.

This is the most traditional, but most fundamental use of infographics. Infographics in this class include the cross-section, the exploded view and yes, the map.

Land is as physical as things can get:

Map of mediaeval Spain by Nanosanchez

The trend is moving towards including not just one, but several diagrams to explain subject matter. The modern digital infographic is self-contained, with a header and even lede copy; the diagram is designed to be distributed on its own. In other words, the infographic is a replacement for the text article. An infographic, as the Chinese saying goes, is truly worth a one-thousand-word-count copy.

This modern infographic explaining the technical elements of roller derbying is so good, it's practically a storyboard for an equivalent video. (Hint: Content spin-off

Infographic from

Use infographics when you're dealing with abstract concepts

When you're deailing with an intangible concept, such as time, data, or a combination of both, i.e. longtitudinal data, you should also use infographics. It's the direct opposite use case: the more non-physical and abstract the idea is, the more useful infographics will be.

This is what most modern infographics focuses on: visualisation of data. Infographics in this class include graphs, timelines, processes.

A flowchart explaining the Credit Card Interchange:

Infographic from

A timeline showing the declining political influence of city dwellers in the United States:

Infographic from citylimits

Modern computers and the advent of big data have also made more abstract forms of infographics possible. Interestingly, these often take on one of most traditional of infographic forms, the map:

Image from the Mapping Wikipedia project

Use of infographics in content strategy is challenging

It's easy for anyone to show you what infographics are good for with prepared examples. (You might have found the preceding examples a little on the obvious side.) It's quite another thing to effectively use infographics in your content strategy. That my little research turned out almost no objective study of online infographics' effectiveness (and ironically, plenty of infographics about infographics) tells me several things.

1) The possibilities of infographics are also constraints. Infographics were supposed to be a way of extending the limitations of text. Now, they sometimes become an end in themselves. Opportunities for effective use infographics are actually very limited; the information they convey must typically conform to specific typologies (like the ones above) in order to work well. Yes, there are exceptions. But are they good?

This is not to deny the fact that infographics are very good at drawing attention. But it's only good at drawing attention against a backdrop of text. When your content strategy requires your infographic to stand out against a backdrop of other pictures (say on Pinterest), the choice of metaphor on your infographic is a little like picking a band for the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Text is, by far, the more flexible and malleable content option, both from the perspective of content creation and SEO.

2) Infographics are expensive. Like almost all online content, people underestimate the effort and cost of creating an infographic. Traditionally, it takes a dedicated art unit inside a newspaper to have the expertise to consistently create high quality infographics. (And reader expectations for infographics in a newspaper are decidedly high.)

These days, clients pay a penny to a generalist freelancer, or worse--an inhouse artist--and expect the same quality. Not going to happen.

3) Infographics is part of a viral content strategy. When a type of content is costly to produce, it is not viable to create them on a sustained basis. What we have here is a viral content strategy: an expensive piece of rich content that attracts reader attention and motivates them to pass it on others.

In other words, you need social media in the mix as well. Adding infographics without social sharing buttons is an epic fail.

If your intention is just to improve usability, consider scaling down the complexity and complexity of your infographics. You shouldn't worry that your modest, plain flowchart looks different from something produced by JESS3. It serves a fundamentally different purpose.

4) Infographics is part of a content curation strategy. Creating infographics requires raw material. Material such as that wall of text and those Excel tables your infographics is supposed to replace. More than the creative resources required, pre-existing content or data is essential to infographic design. Few organisations outside the newspaper industry have the constant flow of raw content and data required to churn out infographics on a sustained basis.

The solution? Curate infographics created by others.

What if you can't do this, say, because your organisation or client forbids carrying/endorsing content published by 3rd parties? Answer: an "infographics-based content strategy" isn't really a option for you.

5) No one will tell you you're doing infographics wrong. Like in all fads, the environment is split between people who have the know-how and are exploiting the new market, and people who don't have know-how and are tentative about adopting the new technique. Since few vendors do both web design and infographics, companies typically commission vendors specifically to do an infographic. This is a good thing. We need specialists who are good at what they do.

On the other hand, a graphic artist--which is often exactly what a designer of your infographic--can't tell you whether it's a good idea from a content strategy or UX perspective.