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A picture is worth 1,000…data points: Why good info-graphics work.

Remember the first time you recognized a picture of Elmo or crazy Aunt Lucy as a baby, even before you had the motor skills to mouth things like “Mama” or “cookie?” Well probably not, but the point is that you could recall shapes, colors and patterns before you could replicate speech or recognize the ABCs. Pictures can be simultaneously digestible, passive and engaging. It makes sense that in such a data-hailing and information saturated age, the word “info-graphic” is on the tip of everyone’s (OK maybe only the people I hang out with) tongue. (Fun fact: It isn’t considered a real word yet).

So what is with all of the commotion around data visualization, including things like contests and blogs? Well, we spend A LOT of time looking for information online, and who wants to download and read .pdfs, scour headlines, and sift through journals to find compelling data? I don’t know about you but I’ve got other things to do. Truth is, we are in the information era and if you want to grab peoples’ attention, you had better make your idea easily digestible and compelling.

These designers and devs mentioned some useful tidbits:

1. Start with compelling data. As a designer I have the urge to make mundane text like nutrition labels pretty, but let’s face it, you need a story to tell. Pinpoint exactly what you are trying to highlight, expose, or humorify. (Yes, you can “humorify” data).

2. Tell a story. Yes, it should be clean and crisp and other obscure design words, but how is it engaging the viewer? Is it clever or funny or thought provoking (ask people other than your mom).

GovLooper, Jeff Ribeira, recently gained some insight from data visualization king, Tufte, himself. (And then so generously shared it with me 🙂

3. Be flexible. Tufte advocates that info-graphics are to be made for varying levels of consumption. Let your reader use their own cognitive power to consume the graphic.

4. Don’t be afraid to explain. Yes, an info-graphic is supposed to turn data into a picture, but don’t do yourself a disservice by neglecting to explain how to best consume the graphic. A little text can go a long way.

But also…

5. Don’t underestimate your reader. Give the user the benefit of the doubt and don’t “dumb it down”…give them the best you’ve got. When graphical information has depth, the analysis of data layers draw in the reader. Tufte’s favorite infograph is Charles Minard’s description of Napoleon’s disastrous advance on Moscow. What makes at graphic so impressive is that it has six different variables: location (x&y), time, the size of Napoleon’s army, temperature and direction. In the graphic, the army’s fate becomes obvious to the viewer and it is much more powerful than simply describing the event through text.

So what now? Check out sites for cities that are making raw data accessible. With more gov data available, Americans can now access all sorts of information, from the density of wifi hotspots to electricity consumption by zipcode. Of course, there is data.gov, numbrary.com, and opensecrets.org to get you started. Dig around and find some state and local data, then design away. And who knows, maybe you could kick off your next meeting with a graphic to get everyone thinking!

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Pat Fiorenza

This was a great post – lots of interesting insights. There is something to the art of simplification – stripping a complex issue down to its core and telling the appropriate story. For me, a good infographic does just that. It’s this tough balance to reach where you simplify, but do not marginalize information. I always love infographics that tell a compelling story about data, but then encourage you to go off and learn more about the topic. We are surrounded by data, and we are increasingly challenged on how to use the information efficiently without getting drowned in numbers. Storytelling with data is becoming increasingly more important for government.

This is one of my favorite infographics: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/the-digital-government-strategy-timeline-an-infographic

Be interested in your thoughts about a recent post I did as well: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/how-to-effectively-communicate-your-message-marrying-content-and-