Designer and consultant Laura Knight tells us all we needed to know to navigate the tricky (but wonderful) world of infographic storytelling.
“To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate numbers” – Otto Neurath
Information is everywhere; but how to make sense of it is another thing altogether. It could be argued the part played by infographics to make sense of the world is more crucial now than it has ever been. But where do we start?
Last week in the library we hosted a workshop with Laura Knight, a designer and consultant with years of experience working on infographics as former director of Data Design Studios; having recently been a consultant for the likes of the Guardian and the UN, Laura is well placed to tell us a thing or two about what makes information engaging and truly informative. Throughout the session Laura gave us some invaluable advice on what goes into making great infographic storytelling—and a better understanding of why some are better than others.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Know the difference between data visualisation and infographics
One thing common about this area of design is that there are many terms we use interchangeably, but that are in fact very specific in their individual meaning. An icon, for example, is a literal image or representation of something; whereas a symbol is a graphic or image that represents something else, like a circle for a tube stop.
Infographics are concerned with conjuring up a narrative or story, something to lead the viewer through the information they are presented with; in short, “infographics need to tell people what to look at”. They are about creating an interpretation or highlighting something in the data that we feel ought to be seen. As such we can be much more selective with the data we show, if it means we can make a much clearer message with what we do....
2. Choose the right ‘path’ for what you’re trying to achieve
...But with this all being said, there is no one way to ‘tell a story’ with data and you have to choose a method for conveying what you want to say. Laying some ground rules for why you want to create an infographic cuts down the work put into the final object and can give you a clearer sense of what direction you should go in. We should ask ourselves: who the audience is for this topic, what the infographic can be used to achieve, and other focused, specific questions.
3. Know what information is important—and what isn’t
Once we know what we want to achieve with our infographic, it is much easier to know how to be selective with the information we put in it. We should try and split our information into three categories: what is essential, what is additional or helpful, and what is finer detail (but nonetheless nice to have). Afterwards we should be able to fit our data into our ‘narrative’ accordingly, and know what can be done away with if we are starting to give our audience more information than is necessary.
4. Consider what every detail is trying to do, and what it says
Every element of a given infographic—from colour to type of chart to typography—should contribute at least one of three things, says Laura. They should either: one, establish hierarchy within in a given dataset; two, clarify the relationships among elements within the infographic; or three, draw attention to a significant detail. As a general rule, Laura says, no infographic should be dependent on one visual element, but instead be a harmony of many elements.
5. Play to conventions (sometimes)
Although infographics are perhaps more ‘creatively inspired’ than data visualisation, it’s important to remember that conventions within them are still very pervasive, and to try and upturn these can actually be to the detriment of what we’re trying to communicate. The choice of chart can shape how we approach the information, as can the use of length, direction or angle in the design. Pie charts should not use more than five categories; any more and you are better off using a treemap instead. And so on. Laura pointed us to the Data Visualisation Catalogue to better familiarise ourselves with the nuanced uses of every kind of chart conceivable.