Are you confusing infographics with data visualization?


Is there a difference between infographics and data visualization and, if so, what is it? This is the question I’ve been asking myself as I put pressure on graphics designers to convert complex data into attractive and meaningful visuals (for a project unrelated to DXC).

Telling a story with no words isn’t as easy as one might think and that is by no means the fault of graphic designers. In fact, the problem is often that graphic designers are doing exactly what they’ve been trained and asked to do. They add a design element to what might otherwise be a boring data set.

However, as the designers and I got into more and more complicated data sets there seemed to be something missing in the designs, but it wasn’t the designs themselves. What we realized is that, to be successful, even the best graphic designer needs a strong connection to the data from which an infographic is being derived.

Taking data about rather mainstream themes like obesity in America and adding numeric and graphic representations of the concept is not easy, but it’s easier than visualizing data on more obscure topics like genomics or precision medicine.

As the data points from our research became more complex we faced three problems:

  1. Finding graphic representations for complicated themes
  2. Telling a compelling story with more graphics than text
  3. Keeping our infographic designs from all looking the same
  4. Creating compelling insight from the graphic representation

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of creating infographics (or any other type of content) simply because the format is trendy. I think this may be the case when trying to turn complex data into catchy graphics. Maybe this data wasn’t intended to be storyboarded by using icons, avatars and font sets looking like a ransom note. But in an age of digital content marketing disruption, we need to try.

During a recent call, a client harshly critiqued a draft of an infographic design and it was then that I had an epiphany. We were producing infographics when our clients were expecting data visualization. You may be saying, “but wait, they’re both the same!”

But they’re not.

What we were missing was a critically important step between the original research and the design process. Researchers are very good at extracting findings. Graphic designers are great about taking direction on turning those findings into pretty slides or graphics. What’s missing is a middle step in which those findings are concentrated into compelling, bite-sized portions conducive to iconic and numerical imagery. This looks easy when you see an infographic, but the best designs are very difficult to produce with only design skills.

The key is in how the sequence of the imagery in the infographic tells a story with as few words as possible. In fact, the imbalance between information (text) and graphics is one of the major gripes that stakeholders have when reviewing infographics.

So, to better fill this gap, we decided to view the job specification a bit differently. Most graphics designers include infographics as a skill promoted alongside their abilities to create brochures, pieces of sales collateral, advertising and video. However, we changed our search to focus on data visualization experts with a graphic design capability. This subtle reprioritization of skills produced a very different talent pool. Putting data first in our search resulted in a data-first approach to our infographics, as opposed to a graphics-first approach.

It was a subtle but critical tweak!


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  1. Lynn Christofferson says:

    Beautiful evidence lies in the eyes of the beholder —bravo, Frank!

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