We don't realize it, but we all make infographics, every day. And if we aren't working on an infographic, we are looking at an infographic. They are everywhere.
The formal definition of an infographic is "a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data." This could be a simple Excel chart, a Word table, a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, a well-designed graphic (see a couple below), a map, a flow chart, or even a meme (like the Grumpy Cat one below).
And of course, we can't forget Grumpy Cat!
What all types of (info)graphics have in common is that each visually tells a story with a series of text and images. Of course, some achieve this goal better than others, but they generally do the same thing.
4 qualities that make an infographic a successful communication tool:
- A strong story to tell
- Solid data to back up ideas
- Strong points to educate the reader
- It is fun to look at and read
Why we need images with text
In many ways, a visually oriented story is a more natural story for us to tell. This is probably why PowerPoint is the tool of choice for most business organizations.
Surprisingly, it's just easier for your brain to process an image rather than a word. There is a theory that when you hear a word, you visualize it in your head. The parts of your brain that process vision start to operate so you can "see" the picture.
The answer that emerged from this research is that when you encounter words describing a particular action, your brain simulates the experience, Bergen says.
--Jon Hamilton, Imagine A Flying Pig: How Words Take Shape In The Brain, NPR
This is partly why it's important to have an image in your presentation associated with what you are describing, and why drawings help you make your points more clearly. Drawings and pictures make your story easier for an audience to understand (less processing required) and more memorable (because you hear and see the same concept - there is no guessing about context or meaning so you can clearly understand what's being communicated). If you hear the word "dog" and then see a dog on the screen, it's a more concrete experience than talking about a dog and allowing the audience to imagine one in their heads. That's work.
SlideShare consulted with an educational psychologist to create a piece about how the brain processes visual communication. Similar to the study I just described, the brain has an easier time processing information if an image is provided with text.
We make infographics with PowerPoint (we don't like to admit to it tho)
A class by Edward Tufte taught me how PowerPoint really should work (even though Tufte is far from being a fan).
He wrote 4 books that set the industry standard for presenting information. He often refers to Charles Joseph Minard's diagram of Napoleon's March on Russia as being a masterpiece of great information design. I remember taking away from his seminar how a graphic (now infographic) needs to meet a set of communication goals in order to tell a story, like that diagram does. It's true.
Many believe that PowerPoint is an evil, corporate tool. It's the tool of business, mainly because it allows people to create their own infographics to communicate ideas to their teammates. However, the catch is that PowerPoint graphics don't stand-alone - the presentation around it gives it life.
PowerPoint can be highly effective to communicate complex, abstract ideas, of course, if executed well with images and text and narration.
Here are 3 ways creating a PowerPoint slide deck is like designing an infographic:
- Minimal use of text. PowerPoint isn't about reading. Slides are dependent upon you being there to talk people thru the ideas and fill-in the details.
- Use graphics wherever possible to illustrate an idea. This is why SmartArt exists. Don't judge me - I am a fan of SmartArt because it gives a quick way to present information outside of a bulleted list. It's a great start to go beyond bulleted lists.
- Simple and easily understood at a glance. If you need to give your slide a lot of explanation, you have failed at creating an infographic. If you need to include a lot of data and bullet points to support your findings, you have made your argument too complex. Keep it simple.
Sketchnotes - another case of graphics with text
The other day, I downloaded a book titled, The Sketchnote Handbook. I sketch a lot myself, not in a professional/artist way, just my own notes and thoughts. I typically formalize these notes in PowerPoint or InDesign if I need to make them intelligible to others. I also am an obsessive doodler (mainly geometric shapes and flowers).
I observed that the sketchnotes in the book were a type of infographic - they were illustrations of ideas and thoughts summarized in a few pages of text and images. Sure, they were sketches, but they were groups of sketches that had a loose relationship with each other. Each expressed a different idea and told a story.
The drawing created with Sketchnotes improved memory and recall for those doing the drawings because it was a visual map illustrating an idea. It's not art, but it has a graphic quality that engages you, pulling you into its experience to learn more about that thought or idea.
Sketchnoting on a white board?
Last summer at the Agile 2014 Conference, I attended a session by Lynne Cazaly titled, "The Lady with the Chiseled Tipped Pen." The session was about using sketchnotes while white boarding ideas in meetings. It was awesome! I left knowing that people remember your message better when they see a visual diagram, or infographic, on the whiteboard rather than only a list. She converted the whiteboard brainstorming experience into an experience of creating an infographic, live.
Infographics make our thoughts relevant
When I create a site map, a flow diagram, or a wireframe, in some ways, I am creating an infographic to illustrate the proposed flow of information on a Web site. When I create a slide illustrating the flow of information using minimal text and a lot images (even the clichéd cloud to represent a conversation) - I am creating an infographic.
When you design a flyer, a menu with pictures and illustrations, a PowerPoint slide, or even a simple table or chart in Word - you have created a type of infographic.
In today's information glut, we are all competing to be better communicators, for our thoughts and ideas to be heard and remembered through the noise.
I think that is why we are all making infographics - even if it is to refresh our own memories.