After a brief exchange with Joe Chernov of Eloqua on his post 16 Experts Answer, “What makes a great infographic?”, I began thinking about the perception and role of editorial infographics. While transforming a huge data set into a beautiful visualization is admittedly a sexier undertaking, this does not detract from the value that information design brings to other applications, notably web and print editorial.
Edward Tufte often touts the ability of information design to bring a new level of clarity to traditional written content, especially in reference to his use of sparklines. There is no better opportunity to illustrate this marriage of written content and design than with editorial infographics. As with an article, topics vary greatly, and there are many styles of approach for such pieces. Just as data and facts can be quoted in an article, so can opinion and humor be utilized in graphic format. I would argue that the combination of multiple elements actually makes for a stronger piece altogether. Therefore, the format options for graphic content should be both diverse and flexible. There is a purist mentality often surrounding infographic and data visualization that is not only limiting, but counteracts the very purpose of these pursuits, which is to be clear, engaging and versatile.
It seems that the term ‘infographic’ conjures different images for different people. The purists see complex and beautiful visualizations of large and comprehensive data sets. Tufte may take it one step further to the conservative side and refuse to acknowledge the value of aesthetic appeal if it does not directly benefit the clarity the piece provides. On the other end of the spectrum is the Internet newcomer who believes that the term ‘infographic’ references the spammy, 4500 pixel-long collections of clip art and facts on a topic (example link intentionally omitted). In the middle lies infinite opportunity for well-designed information graphics in myriad formats. Here are a few reasons the implementation of solid design is not only useful, but important in web editorial.
Editorial infographics have the ability to display various types of information within a single format, enabling smooth transitions between text and graphic content, which is useful in explaining concepts, visualizing relationships, comparing data, and displaying processes that would otherwise need to be mocked up and inserted into an article.
2. Ease of digestion
Whether you want to blame it on decreasing attention spans or increased productivity, we all seem to have less and less time on our hands. Enabling readers to digest information quickly is beneficial for everyone.
Many people learn better through visual communication, and a well-formatted graphic not only better engages the reader, but also increases retention of the information.
Editorial infographics enable multiple options for sharing content. The image files can be easily saved and re-uploaded to personal blogs, Tumblrs, or sent via email.
While I would agree that the influx of ill-intentioned, poor quality infographics do not provide clarity or value, the format and application are not to blame, the quality and content are. In short, If quality is high, and the content is strong and clear, then the design of information adds significant value, regardless of what you want to call it.
Ross Crooks is a Column Five cofounder. Follow him on Twitter @rtcrooks