Two trends fuel the growing use of infographics, according to writer, trainer, and information designer Ronnie Lipton: the profusion of data and people's shortened attention spans to absorb it.
"Informational graphics, or infographics, have been around for years," she noted. "What is so engrossing about them now is their ability to deal with massive quantities of data to show patterns and relationships, and, we hope, to show them more quickly and memorably than words can alone." (Lipton and Karl Gude, former director of informational graphics at Newsweek and now professor at Michigan State, are co-authoring a book on the topic for John Wiley & Sons. On March 11, they are presenting at SXSW in Austin.)
While the visuals initially draw an audience in, the message makes the difference beyond a pretty picture. "We as designers can get stuck creating something cool, but we need to keep the audience at the fore," noted Alex Herder, co-founder of the agency The Duke & The Duck. "Does what we create advance the agenda with the audience?"
What's Your Point?
Your organization may want to share findings from a survey or research. Or you want to use government or other publicly available data to advance a cause or grow a product line. You may have a serious message or one that is more light-hearted.
The first challenge: Combing through the data to merge what you want to get across with what is of concern or of value to your audience.
"Before you start up software, think through--what is the point? What is the one thing we need to show? What does the audience care about?" Lipton said. And as an ongoing practice, she suggested, review infographics created by others and see how long it takes you to glean the intended messages.
Words, But Not Too Many
Collaboration between the writer and designer, therefore, starts with developing the concept behind the infographic. It should not stop there.
"An infographic is another way to tell a story," observed Herder. "Therefore, an accomplished story teller is needed." He recounted a successful project to produce a series of infographics for a retail industry association. He teamed up with writers and strategists in another agency, to everyone's benefit.
How many words? "As many words as you need, and no more," said Lipton. Your draft copy will probably include:
- Title: Make it clear and catchy, going back to your intended message.
- Legends and captions: Be ruthless about taking out the excess but ask people (ideally, members of your target audience; if not, at least people not familiar with the data) to review a draft. Are you terse to the point of being cryptic?
- Transitions from one graphic to another: Again, enough to make the flow clear, in language that resonates with your audience.
A note about sources: Maintain your credibility by ensuring you are (1) not plagiarizing, (2) using solid data, and (3) showing sources. If you have multiple sources, consider collecting them on a linked page or grouping them at the bottom of the page.
The rise of infographics corresponds with the rise of social media.
Your role as a writer extends to crafting enticing tweets, blog posts, Facebook messages, and other ways to encourage your audience to share the infographic and broaden its reach.
Do you have an infographic you're proud of? Send me a tweet (@ptwhitacre), and I will share it with others.