Why graphs are great: the power of infographics

Date
19 July 2023

Will you publish a story online using only text? Good luck. Chances are your reader will tune out before it even gets interesting. Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not your fault. The online world is dominantly visual: images keep the scrolling audience captivated. The alphabet alone won't cut it: when presenting data you can’t do without infographics.

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Our brains are only human: as soon as they are presented with a task - in this case: processing a text - they look for visual elements to make things easier for themselves. After all, information that is presented visually can be stored much faster than text alone.

An infographic is therefore first and foremost a tool for the human brain. Apart from supporting the memory function of our brain, infographics have another visual added value: they make your page more appealing for the reader. They liven up the layout, add colour and breath air on the page.

What makes a good infographic?

Nomen est omen: an infographic consists mainly of info. Its primary goal is to ensure the reader understands something they didn't already know. You are not doing anyone a favour with an infographic that looks nice but conveys no intel. On the other hand, the same reader has precious little use for an infographic brimming with interesting data that is hopelessly complex. 

The ideal infographic is reliable, accessible and attractive.

1. Reliable

What’s the source of your data? Are the figures you use correct and complete? And most importantly, have you visualised them correctly? An inaccurate picture can suggest conclusions that are not correct at all. A well-known example is the vertical axis not starting at 0. The left graph starts at a value of 2.0 and seems to tell you that the difference between the April and June values is very large. With the right one (which does start correctly at 0.0), that difference is suddenly a lot less noticeable.

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Another golden rule: say no to 3D. A 3D visualisation can make parts in the foreground appear bigger than they are. The blue part of this pie chart is actually smaller than the yellow, but the 3D representation makes it look the other way around.

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The bar chart below shows the results of a survey on mobility among self-employed people and small and medium-sized companies. No misunderstandings here: the proportions are perfectly represented, and the conclusions are clear.

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2. Accessible

Do you know who you are talking to and are you targeting your communication accordingly?  An infographic for a group of IT experts should look different from one for the employees of a sheltered workshop. Also, what good is a graphic that is too complex and confusing for your readers to draw any conclusions from it without losing their sanity trying? Avoid 'data puking': using graphs that want to tell too much leaving your reader disheartened and none the wiser.

An example that has been circulating for years is that of a US Army commander who wanted to demonstrate the complexity of the war in Afghanistan. 

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The 2008 infographic shows so many aspects and connections that it is impossible to make sense of - even by the senior military personnel it was intended for. If the commander in question wanted to prove that the war in Afghanistan was complex, he succeeded with flying colours. But why was it? As a reader trying to decipher the answer, you don't get a clue - just a headache.

Less is more: accessible infographics limit themselves to one clear message. This visualisation shows the results of a survey on green mobility among small and medium-sized companies. In each case, you see a clear question with clear answers, without superfluous text.

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3. Attractive

Anyone can pluck a bar chart from Excel. Turning it into a successful infographic is another matter. So leave it to a professional designer to transform complex data into a handsome visualisation. 

There are many ways to make the layout of your infographic more appealing, using trendy colours, integrating icons or photos and adding inspiring elements. Do not forget to intersperse with white space: the quieter the design, the easier your reader will understand the message. You’ll see: a good-looking infographic works like a magnet for your reader's gaze. 

The infographic below shows the impact of cancer on patients' lives. Anything but a fun topic, but an attractive design with lots of colour, cool graphics and clear icons makes the message enjoyable to read.

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What type do you choose (and which definitely not)?

Infographics come in all sizes and shapes, and some are more suitable for your text than others. But how do you decide which one is the best choice? Ask yourself: what is the ideal graphic representation for the data you want to show? Will you display them with dots, connect them with a line, pour them into bars, or choose something completely different? And how do you want to show distinction in value —by changing size, length, or position? Or by adjusting colours, thickness, or shapes?

Here are some rules of thumb:
 

  • An evolution in numbers can easily fit into a bar chart

  • A series of events (such as the history of your company) is better suited for a chronological timeline, possibly accompanied by additional visuals. 

  • If there is a distribution (think of a budget, an age-based workforce, or the result of a vote), then a pie or donut chart is a logical choice. 

Take your time to explore all the possibilities and view many examples before making a decision.

Brain says no!

You are free to design an infographic however you like, but there are some unwritten rules you must follow. The author of these rules? Our brain. It assumes that a graph is constructed according to a certain logic. For example, the horizontal axis always represents time, and the vertical axis represents the associated values. Reverse this, and you'll find that your brain protests.

Here's another one: we automatically interpret red as negative and green as positive or sustainable. Using these colors can greatly enhance your message. However, if you get it wrong, you turn your tool into an obstacle. Instead of keeping your scrolling reader engaged, you confuse them and push them towards the exit.

Toon Heylen
Toon Heylen
Copywriter – iO

Toon has more than 15 years of experience in the world of copywriting, marketing, communications and editing. In the iO pack, he is both sprinter and man of the long solos: on his record are slogans of 20 characters next to trend files of 20,000.

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