The 10 Commandments of Infographics
Visual content performs better than text-only content. Infographics are a particularly shareable form of informational content that can substantially boost social performance and drive veritable boatloads of traffic to your site. But that’s only true if you do it well. Here are ten principles that will serve you well in the design and creation of infographics. They will help you avoid common mistakes and maximize the value your graphic provides.
I. Thou shalt not tell that which can be shown
The whole point of an infographic is to present information graphically–visually. The more you can use images, icons, and charts to convey the idea, the more effective your infographic will be.
II. Thou shalt display the minimum amount of information to communicate the idea
At the conclusion of the research and analysis phase, take a hard look at the data that’s left. Decide what information is relevant to your purpose, and what can be cut. Even on the charts you keep, keep data labels and grid lines to a minimum and reduce the clutter. Crowded infographics obscure the message.
III. Thou shalt not use a pie chart for more than 4 categories
Pie charts are great for showing comparative amounts and percentages, but when you exceed 4 or 5 categories, the relative differences become difficult to see quickly. Bar charts are better for comparing higher numbers of categories.
IV. Thou shalt not use boring frequency tables…
…neither shalt thou use confusing dot plots, neither incomprehensible box and whisker plots, neither any uninteresting nor unintuitive visualization–For cursed shall be the blogger who sinneth against simplicity.
V. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy data
A famous quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli goes, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Don’t misunderstand; statistical data and objective analyses are the greatest tools we have for determining truth. But for that very reason, there is a constant temptation to misrepresent the data. There are many strategies for doing this, and some of them don’t even require premeditation. Common damned lies involving data include:
- Using too small a sample size
- Manipulating definitions to transform measurements
- Conflating correlation and causation (see Commandment VI)
- Selection bias
- Drawing conclusions unsupported by the data
- Post Hoc, Ergo Proctor Hoc
- Truncating chart axes
- Just plain making up the data
- Many, many more…
VI. Thou shalt not confuse correlation with causation
This is one particular form of bearing false witness that doesn’t even require manipulation of the data. Finding a correlation may suggest that two variables actually show a relationship, but it doesn’t prove the existence of the relationship or provide much information into the nature of that relationship.
By examining data, it’s possible to show links that don’t actually exist. For example, check out this list of spurious correlations. Crash Course Statistics tells us that a correlation between two variables (let’s call them X and Y) can mean one of four things:
- X causes Y
- Y causes X
- A third variable Z causes both X and Y
- Total coincidence–no relationship
Further research may be required to prove a causal link in your data. Causation analyses are extremely difficult, and may fall outside the scope of your infographic project. But if so, admit it! Acknowledging weaknesses or gaps in your research probably increases your credibility with your audience. Don’t try to hide from further questions.
VII. Thou shalt employ color for clarity and contrast, not just for decoration
Or both, if you can manage it. Color is one of your most effective tools for guiding the viewer’s eye. Infographics should be aesthetic, but their first priority is to effectively communicate information. Use color and contrast for that purpose.
VIII. Thou shalt not use gimmicky 3D images
3D visualizations look pretty cool, but they are less intuitive and therefore less effective at conveying the information. Look, I love me some pretty design, but form must follow function, first and foremost.
IX. Thou shalt tell a story
All good stories follow a simple formula: setup, conflict, and resolution. The reason this format is effective is that human beings interpret our lives as narratives. Your audience is the protagonist, and you can position yourself as the mentor figure–the Gandalf or the Obi Wan Kenobi. You have the arcane information the hero needs to overcome his or her conflict. By tapping into that frame, we can build trust and help the audience ingest and interpret our message effectively. We can structure the presentation of information to follow this format.
We took this advice very literally when we created our infographic on How to Save Money Blogging with BMC. The narrative flow of the information is quite visible here. Even when there isn’t a temporal relationship to the sections of the infographic that lends itself to a traditional plot structure, you can guide the audience through the information in a strategic way that helps them understand simply.
X. Thou shalt conclude
If a story requires a setup, conflict, and resolution, then your conclusion should answer the question “So what?” Or maybe a better question is “What should I do about this information.” The most impactful infographics aren’t for the gee-wiz file–they inspire readers to take action. Frequently, this action is going to be a CTA. You’re Obi-Wan, after all; behind your paywall is the keys to using the force.