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How to design data

From mind maps, bubble charts, cartograms and wordles to waterfall charts, dot plots, candlestick charts and sparklines, data presentation can get a bit overwhelming. So if you have a range of important and interesting facts and figures that you need to get across to your audience, and you want a bit of artistic flair to boot, what’s the best way to do it? Enter the infographic.

So what exactly are infographics? The current Wikipedia entry for the word gives the definition as:

Graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilising graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends.

Put like that, it makes complete sense. After all, the aim of data presentation is just that – to present data. So why is it that so many of the ‘infographics’ we see around us today are little more than pretty pictures?

Unfortunately, it’s all to do with being ‘cool’. In an attempt to update the look and feel of a brand or add a bit of ‘street-cred’, companies are falling over themselves to have the latest, most original and…well, cool infographics to illustrate what they do and what their message is. And to some extent, there’s nothing wrong with that.

The thing is, data is already cool.

There’s nothing like a well-placed chart or a memorable image to link ideas, improve cognition and get your message across. Facts, statistics and raw data can be powerful stuff.

Done well, infographics have the ability to represent complex data in a highly effective, efficient and space-saving manner, targeted at a particular audience and aimed at producing a particular outcome. Readers of an infographic should be able to quickly spot trends, gather insights, understand complexities and gain knowledge. Of course, infographics can look good too. But that’s an added bonus; an infographic is first and foremost a tool, not a picture.

Luckily, it’s perfectly possible to be both factual and beautiful. If you have interesting, complex data (it needs to be fairly complex so that the infographic works and doesn’t look like it’s just padded out with superfluous design elements) that you need to get across to your audience, here are our top tips.

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A good infographic should be:

  • Clear
  • Understandable
  • Interesting
  • Relevant
  • Targeted to the audience
  • Memorable
  • Visually appealing

As with much of design, simplicity is the key. Don’t dumb down the data, but make sure it’s shown in a way that allows your audience to see the message clearly and quickly. There should be no room for misunderstanding. Bear in mind that when done badly, infographics (as with all forms of data presentation) can be misleading, jeopardise the integrity of the data and include elements that distract from the key information.

Design-wise, colour, shape, size and proximity should be used to highlight key elements of the data, not just to look stylish. So the colour or shape of particular repeated elements might operate as a classification tool, size could indicate proportion or numerical size, proximity may suggest a grouping and alignment of objects might demonstrate continuation.

Think about hierarchy too. What do you want the reader to look at first? Is your data concentric (needing to be read from the middle outwards), or would a left-to-right reading make more sense? Does your typography and image choice encourage this?

Finally, don’t forget the tried-and-tested types of data representation. Although there are countless, rather strange and wonderful ways to represent data, don’t be afraid to use simple bar, line and pie charts. The reason they are so popular and have been used for so long is that they work; they show data quickly and easily, and people already understand how to read them. Don’t fall into the trap of creating an all-singing, all-dancing infographic when a bar chart would have been more effective.

As with so many things, it all comes down to choosing the right tool for the job. Assuming you keep your audience and goals in mind, and be sure to focus on the data itself, infographics can really hit the mark. They’re great fun to design and you’ll gain a deep sense of satisfaction from creating something that is practical, relevant, fascinating and beautiful.

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