Though the popularity of infographics has risen dramatically in the past few years, I still commonly receive questions about the various terms used to describe this field of design. Data visualization, information design, visual content and infographic are just some of these terms, and the confusion is understandable. Many of these labels are not only overlapping, but also open to individual interpretation. What follows are my personal thoughts on the distinctions between these, and why it is important that when we discuss “infographics,” we are talking about the same thing.

Infographics

A simple Google Trends search will show that the term “infographic” has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity lately, largely due to the use of this medium for editorial content on the web. I see this term as the broadest descriptor, encompassing, obviously, any graphic that displays information. This may include graphics showing data, copy or both. As the buzz surrounding this word has grown, so has the argument regarding what should be included in this classification. I believe this term should remain open and inclusive as the medium evolves, leaving the specificity to the areas outlined below.

Data Visualization

In the age of big data, we need to both make sense of the numbers and be able to easily share the story they tell. The practice of data visualization, which is the study of the visual representation of data, typically analyzes large data sets. It seeks to uncover trends by showing meta patterns, or to make single data points easily visible and extractable. The visual display of this data is the most interesting and universal way to make it accessible to a wide audience. And as with all infographic design, the display method is rooted in the context and desired message.

Source: Francesco Franchi

This practice is the most numbers-heavy, and typically is what a purist would describe as a “true” infographic. These visualizations also tend to be more complex, as they often are attempting to display a great number of data points. In some cases, these graphics functionally serve only as art pieces, if no message can be extracted. When properly executed, however, they should be both beautiful and meaningful, allowing the viewer to decipher data and recognize trends while admiring its aesthetic appeal.

Information Design

Source: Column Five

This subset of graphic design focuses on the display of information efficiently and effectively. It is also a broad category, encompassing many functional design disciplines. It can be used to describe process, anatomy, chronology or hierarchy. These can take the form of flowcharts, organizational diagrams or timelines, clarifying structure and order in a way not possible solely using text. I would also include instructional diagrams, anatomical illustration and some applications of cartography under this label. The goal is to use design to communicate a message that is both clear and universal.

Editorial Infographics

Although major publications have been featuring infographics for decades, there is a shift in the style and type of content to which the visual aspect is being applied. Previously, these graphics were limited to simple bars, lines and pies, using illustration solely in more complex features to map an area or show the anatomy of an object. Currently, publications are finding new ways to display traditional content to engage their readership.

Source: Column Five

In the last two years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of publications utilizing graphic content to replace more traditional editorial features. GOOD Magazine is one of the more prominent, and it is looked to as a leader in the area. Fast Company has begun a push to apply design to a large portion of the content in their print publication.

This adoption has also spread into the commercial sector, with many start-ups and larger corporate blogs using graphic content or “charticles” to display thought-leadership within an industry and bring attention to their site. While some of these can cross the fine line over to advertorial, the good ones do not. The value of this content can then be realized when providing interesting insight from uniquely informed sources.

What’s in a name?

When talking about infographics, we need to acknowledge the room for change and growth. This practice of design is inherently about using innovation and imagination to provide clarity. This currently takes many different forms, some of which are outlined above, and we should hope that this will only continue to expand. Whereas data visualization cannot work without data, and editorial graphics must appeal to an audience, the infographic in general is versatile. Where there is information and a need for design, there is opportunity.

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