Infographics: The Good, the Bad, and the Fluffy

Lisa Park   September 14, 2011

Dissecting the modern day infographic.  (Image via Ivan Cash)

I’m sure you’ve noticed it: the flood of infographics—visual displays of information—coming through on the X number of feeds you’re signed up for. Maybe you’ve heard the buzz around start-up Visual.ly, a community of designers pumping out infographics for the likes of Ebay, CNNMoney and The Huffington Post, or checked out Fast Company’s Infographic of the Day, which debuted back in October ’09, along with a bunch of blogs spotlighting infographics far and wide.

If you’re a content strategist like me, chances are you’ve run a few through an audit as part of a client’s content inventory. If not, I’m guessing you will sooner than later as it’s clear we’re in the middle of a veritable lovefest for the almighty infographic: Folks tout its viral potential and brand-building power along with its ability to deliver information in a visually engaging one-two punch.

Admittedly, I’ve liked and shared a number of these visual data biscuits—or buffets, in some cases—when I’ve given them a cursory once-over. But I’ve passed over 100 times as many. That said, when it comes to client work, the bar goes up, way up. Infographics—just like any other content asset—need to clear several key hurdles in order to get good marks on the content strategy-cum-user experience report card.

Here are five things I look out for to distinguish a good infographic from the bad and the fluffy.

  1. Compelling data that tell a story. Does your client have a message, story, news or information that will resonate with its users? Will it help them understand a complex topic or current trend that they’ll find relevant? If so, then you’ve got a meaningful, engaging narrative that users will not only remember but will also want to share—whether by word of mouth and/or the usual online social methods (which should of course be available to them). If not, then you’ve basically got a whole lot of nothing (read: fluff). Move on.
  2. An infographic that’s relevant to the brand. No matter how cool an infographic is, if it’s not on brand, then what’s the point? Let’s say a telecom company created a fun infographic on coffee usage (Why? Because it’s trendy.) Users may like and share the infographic, but they won’t associate it in any way with the telecom company. And they’ll forget about it like yesterday’s news (see #1). The result: money, resources and a brand-building opportunity thrown down the drain—yet another fluffy infographic bites the dust. In an age of information overload, businesses need to make sure the content they create always supports and enhances their brand.
  3. Simple, clean design. Common sense tells you that clarity in the information design is key. Has the information been edited down to its most essential components? Is the infographic easy to skim? Does the layout make sense? Are the content groupings organized so as to lead the user through the infographic in a logical progression? If so, then you’ve got an infographic that users will be able to scan quickly, allowing them to access the narrative with ease.
  4. Rich graphics. A couple of pie charts and bar graphs do not a good infographic make. The one that will stand out to users and that they’ll therefore remember and tell a friend is the infograph that’s rich with visually appealing, unique iconography and imagery that effectively presents—and doesn’t get in the way of—the message.
  5. Succinct and engaging copy. No matter how compelling the data or fabulous the design or imagery, if the copy’s dull, confusing or verbose, the infographic’s dead in the water. What’s worse, it’ll reflect poorly on the brand. In some cases, you may be able to save an infographic by wordsmithing—and reorganizing—the copy. In any case, make every word count, then edit the heck out of it. And be sure the infographic contains a list or link to current data sources.

My Picks: The Good, the Bad and the Fluffy

I could easily go on (and on) about my picks for good, bad and fluffy, but I’ll limit myself to pithy explanations. And to keep the playing field level, I stuck to infographics sans animation or video.

The Good:

The Rise of the Social Food Truck – Part of Mashable’s Social-Savvy Food Truck Series, supported by the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Truck, this infographic’s simple, spare design supports both brands involved, and the clear, concise copy delivers.

Dirty Dogs – The Local East Village, a community blog put out by NYU and The New York Times, reports on the crazy things hot dogs come stuffed with, including this straightforward, eye-catching design in its “Look out when you cook out!” write-up. (Insects, slugs and worms? You learn something new every day.)

The 10 Commandments of Steve Jobs – I give this Cult of Mac infographic an honorable mention because in context to whom and what it was made for—Newsweek and its cover story on “American Genius Steve Jobs”—it absolutely works.

The Bad and/or Fluffy:

Does Solar Really Work in My State? – Though the topic is relevant to One Block off the Grid, which gives solar group discounts, the information is poorly organized, and the sometimes superfluous and unclear copy gets a C+ at best. Plus, visually it’s a snoozefest.

Sitting Is Killing You – Why would this scare tactic of an infographic get anyone to engage with MedicalBillingandCoding.org? Not to mention the whole thing is a visual and content … ahem … nightmare.

Bachelor Pad Drama Map – I don’t have to go into how forgettably fluffy and just plain bad this garish, eyesore of an infographic is, do I?

What about you? What are some of your favorite infographics, and why do they get the nod over others? Do tell.

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6 Responses

  1. [...] can we do? Razorfish’s scatter/gather blog just had a post about infographics, and I think the distinguishing features of a good infographic apply equally to the written [...]

  2. Michael Harper says:

    I think some of your top picks violate some of your rules, which are excellent. And I think they add up to, “1+1 must equal 3.” That is… does design make these different facts add up to more than the sum of their parts? I think the Food Truck infographic has some shortcomings in this regard, and the Steve Jobs one definitely does (It also violates my corollary rule, which is, “why not just make it a list?”).

    I’d look at something like this (http://visual.ly/logistics-sustainability) as a better example… by designing the content and putting it into a single infographic, the content becomes more valuable than if it were consumed separately on its own.

  3. Kevin says:

    The Steve Jobs one was pretty bad.

    I like this one:
    “Facebook Contests by the Numbers”
    http://visual.ly/facebook-contests-numbers

    Short & sweet, it gets the point across.

  4. [...] us to make connections and understand complex data can be a wonderful thing. But what about the bad or fluffy ones? What purpose do they serve? And why do people want to pin them so [...]

  5. Karyn says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said – and I think a lot of infographics out there often look great from a design perspective but they often make the information harder to read and or understand. The design is motivating the infographic and not the information/data etc. in response I created a fun infographic, titied, “What is an Infographic?” – that is essentially an infographic about what is an infographic – using Lego blocks. Would love to know what you think – http://visual.ly/what-infographic-2

  6. Lisa says:

    Hi Karyn,
    Thanks for your input and for sharing your fun and engaging infographic. Legos evoke a strong sense of nostalgia not just for me but for many folks, I’m sure. That said, just to reiterate, if we’re talking about an infographic that makes the grade in every possible way, then it can’t just have visual appeal and succinct copy–which yours most certainly does, but must also tell a story (communicating data visually) and be relevant to the brand.

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