Use Infographics to Explain Your Work

2 12 2011

Creating dramatic infographics—visually compelling charts and graphs—is not as daunting as it might seem. By following some basic guidelines you can develop infographics that illustrate your research in a way that grabs the attention of both lay and professional audiences.

These tips aim to guide you in producing an infographic that engagingly conveys your concepts using images and words. They have been distilled from the extensive list of how-to web sites at the end of this post. The sites are roughly in the order I found them most helpful. Besides infographics, these tips can also help you develop more effective charts, graphs and diagrams.

Why create an infographic?

To convey basic data , all you really need are simple charts, graphs and diagrams—although you can also make these more attractive with graphics. But true infographics aim to explain more complex concepts, and in a visual, easily scannable and digestible form. They resonate with our visual communication culture, and their visual nature helps overcome literacy and language barriers.

Also, because infographics can be entertaining as well as informative, they attract attention to your work. People tend to share them and link to them on your web site, widening your audience. Adding an infographic to a news release about your work makes it easier for reporters to understand, and media may use or adapt the infographic for an article or web site.

Infographics can range from static images to animated slide shows and videos. They can also range from simple infographics you can produce yourself to those designed by a professional artist. For an in-depth overview of infographics and their history see this Wikipedia article on infographics.

As illustrated by this list of infographics, the best are creative, informative, graphically well organized and often use humor or whimsy:

In contrast, here are a few that I think don’t work:

With these examples in mind, here are steps you can take to create an engaging infographic. Once you’ve gone through them, you might go back and review the examples, and judge which ones you think meet the criteria for good infographics.

What’s your audience?

Most infographics aim at lay audiences, but there are many levels of lay audiences, from science buffs to students or laypeople who know little of science. Similarly, professional audiences may range from students new to the field to established scientists. So, start by deciding the audience at which you will aim your content. Also plan your style accordingly. A lay-level infographic would be more light-hearted, even humorous in style, while a professional-level infographic would be more serious.

Do you really need an infographic?

An infographic should tell a story. It could portray

  • the interrelationships in time or space among elements of a concept
  • a flowchart of a process
  • a visual timeline, for example tracing the evolution of a concept or industry

You don’t need an infographic if you only want to display a collection of data. Instead, a well-designed list or chart might suffice. For example, to me, these Twitter infographics might just as well be lists or simple graphs or charts. Tricking them out as fancy infographics only makes their data more difficult to grasp.

An infographic can also tell your personal story, as a visual resume or life history. If you are a scientist, it can not only visually explain your work and goals , but also display your communication skills. Two good tools for such infographics are the services Re.vu  and Visualize.me, which enable users to import LinkedIn profile information to create an infographic web page profile. The profile can include a broad range of information on your career history, skills and goals. Of course, such resumes could be considered gimmicks, so use them only to the extent that they usefully portray your work and history.

Informational or editorial?

Your infographic could aim only at providing useful information. For example, a how-to infographic might be adapted as a wall poster. And an infographic that shows the sides of a debate will also grab attention. But if you are seeking media coverage as well as attention, your infographic should be an editorial—illustrating your position on a controversial topic. It should be newsworthy, timely, interesting, surprising, opinionated, thought-provoking and/or contrarian. The examples in the list above show both kinds.

Do lots of research!

While you may have plenty of information on your topic, nevertheless check out a wide range of other sources. This research ensures you have all the information—including not only basic facts, but the opinions and theories of others in your field. For scientific topics you could explore Scientific American, Science News, EurekAlert! and Newswise. ThisExplaining Research reference page lists many web content sources that can offer background information for your infographic. To research a broad range of topics beyond science, use Google, Wikipedia and other such search sites. You’ll want to cite these sources in your infographic, to give it credibility.

Chart your points and organize design

Once you’ve gathered your data, write out the points you’ll want to make, and the supporting text. Keep the text extremely brief. Remember, you’re telling your story with graphics as well as text. Your intro should be emphatic but brief, your explanatory text punchy and your supporting statistics simple and dramatic.

Next, sketch out the visual flow of your infographic—how your points might be organized in two dimensions. Also, consider whether you want your infographic to be a literal representation of your topic, or metaphorical. For example, this history of driving in America uses a board game metaphor. Such metaphors will engage viewers and make your infographic fun—if that is the appropriate tone you want. Obviously, for a more serious topic you wouldn’t want such a whimsical design. For a serious or controversial topic, you would want a straightforward design. Color also affects tone, with dark colors implying status and prestige, and bright colors such as yellow being friendlier. For a more extensive discussion of such design tips, see this blog post by Gracie Lavigne.

Include your brand in your design, but unobtrusively so as not to make your infographic look like an ad. This brand should include your web site URL.

Your design should take into account the right size for your infographic. If the infographic will be a vertical, keep it to 1,000 pixels wide and try to keep it no longer than 10,000 pixels; if it is to be a horizontal, make it no taller than 700 pixels. This ensures that users will only have to scroll in one direction, rather than both as with this infographic.

Do you want a video animated infographic?

A video animated infographic combines audio and animated visuals, either video or slides. As a video, it can be posted on YouTube; and as a narrated slide show or video on such sites as Mybrainshark, Slideshare or Slideboom—which also enable you to embed the infographic in your site. Consider creating such an infographic if your topic will really benefit from audio and animation—and if you have the resources. Such video infographics have high impact and will likely be linked to and Tweeted widely. Here’s a good tutorial on video infographics, and for good examples, see this collection of animated infographics and this extraordinary NPR video infographic on how a population grows to seven billion.

Hire a designer, or do it yourself?

For a really elaborate, polished infographic, hire a designer who knows sophisticated design software such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. According to this excellent article on how to find an infographic design agency, the cost should be no more than $1,000.

Your designer should be able to take your text and rough design ideas—and undoubtedly come up with new ideas—and deliver quality designs. Here’s a good article that described what your designer is looking for.

However, you can do your own infographic, if you’re willing to learn some basic software. The new web site visual.ly offers good examples of infographics, and is developing tools and templates to enable you to do your own. Here are other programs that enable basic do-it-yourself infographics, diagrams, flowcharts, maps and image processing:

These tools are among those discussed in this article on tools for making your own infographics.

Whether you use a designer or do it yourself, test your draft infographic on representatives of your audience to make sure it works. One test whether it communicates easily and immediately is to let them look at it for about ten seconds, and see if they are intrigued and get the general idea.

Market your infographic

Once it’s done, of course, you will post your infographic on your web site and/or blog and Tweet about it. But there are other steps you can take to get attention. Send out a news release to media and relevant bloggers about your infographic. And if your infographic illustrates a news release, make sure the link to the infographic is prominently displayed within the release. Send an e-mail blast to lists of people and institutions that will be interested in your infographic.

Beyond these steps, this article on how to market an infographic contains other excellent recommendations for marketing your infographic—for example, including a copy-and-paste embed code, adding buttons for social media sharing (e.g. Facebook, Google+, Twitter), and submitting it to article-sharing sites (e.g. Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit).

Finally, here is a large collection of helpful tutorials on creating infographics, including those I drew on for this post:








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