We have entered an age where visual communication is essential for any company. The need to tell complex stories quickly, effectively and in a way that engages people is not just prevalent, it is universal. Brands that learn and utilize visual communication as a tool to distribute their message and inspire audiences will run circles around those who struggle to find their voice in the medium.
Beyond the necessity to embrace the design of information, infographics also present an incredible opportunity to strengthen your existing branding efforts by developing a unique graphic style to be implemented throughout the company. Consistently creating arresting infographics that can easily be identified with your brand provides an incredible advantage in ensuring that the content your company produces, whether for marketing, customer education or sales collateral is both familiar and well-received.
How do you get started in building a visual language? I will discuss five key considerations to ensure your approach is holistic and successful.
1. Identify Applications
Research the various ways that information graphics are currently used throughout your company. These can range from internal presentations to advertising to white papers. Once you have a clear understanding of how such graphics are used at present, seek to identify potential areas of opportunity to extend the reach of your visual communication efforts. These may include content marketing efforts on your blog or the development of a visual data hub to enable customers to interact with your proprietary data on your site.
The list of applications is as broad as your imagination, but it is important to be aware of all the environments in which infographics will be living in order to consider technological needs or limitations of the various formats graphics might take. These could include printed pieces, static interactive infographics on the web or apps on a mobile device, and motion graphics, animations or video.
2. Identify the Tools Being Used
Next, it is necessary to examine the different tools being used to create graphics within each application. You may have presentations consistently created in PowerPoint, while the creative team uses Illustrator, Photoshop or After Effects to produce advertising or marketing materials. The diversity of software being used across your company poses a significant challenge to developing a consistent style, as the programs obviously don’t have equal capabilities. In this sense, it is unfortunately necessary to play to the lowest common denominator. That is, the style guide should be built such that the software with the least capability is still able to adhere to the style developed. Beyond that, you can also identify applications where it is acceptable (and likely necessary) to exceed the basic style and create more elaborate and beautiful designs. While challenging, it is possible to do this while still maintaining consistency throughout.
3. Map Your Needs
What are the common forms that information design takes within your company? You can start with a simple list of charts and graphs for which a single design style should be developed. To start, you might prescribe how bar charts, pie charts and line charts should look. You can go on to address less common charts such as bubble charts, scatterplots or radar graphs. If you have need to visualize geographic data, you should create standardized map templates for various regions that can be used throughout the organization.
4. Develop Specifications
Once you have identified the three areas above, you should look at the areas necessary to define in the style guide. You may want to be very prescriptive in some areas that are core to your branding, while providing more flexibility with the guidance you give in other areas that are less important. This is unique for each brand. Some common areas to address are:
c. Iconography or illustration style
d. Interactive elements
e. Stylistic elements such as color, patterns, line width, etc.
In developing a style, remember that this is a unique opportunity to challenge and stretch existing brand guidelines to create beautiful graphics. As the medium may be somewhat new, you can take the initiative to build on what is already in place.
5. Distribution and Teaching
Finally, it is important to make sure that the implementation of the visual language is both distributed and adopted widely. As with any new policy, it is a challenge to achieve strict adherence. For this reason, it is valuable to ensure that there is a formal education process upon the completion of new guidelines. Many practitioners may not be graphically-inclined, so it is best to callout some of the considerations that may have gone overlooked such as proper spacing, labeling of graphic elements, color combinations and such. This will raise awareness and help to ensure a consistent look to all infographics, no matter the creator.
In coming years, we will see the major challenges of varied software and user error melt away as automation tools for data visualization become more widely available. Ideally, once empowered with guidelines and tools, employees will be more likely to opt for visual communication methods to get their message out. In this way, it is not only a benefit in terms of outward impression and reputation, but can also begin a positive cycle in which you can transform into a truly visual company.
Ross Crooks is a Column Five cofounder. Follow him on Twitter @rtcrooks