61.4, November 2014

Review of Four Books on Infographics

Brenda P. Huettner

Introduction

Infographics are popping up everywhere lately. They start with bite-sized chunks of information, organize them in a way that tells a story, and add just enough color to make the end result appealing to their audience. Sound familiar? A good infographic relies heavily on traditional technical communication skills. Unfortunately, many infographics do a poor job of communicating their messages. In response, many books are available on the market that attempt to guide you through the process of creating useful, attractive infographics.

One important distinction to make here: infographics are not the same as data visualizations. A “data visualization” is a specific chart, table, or other display based on a set of numbers. An “infographic” often includes one or more data visualizations (the “info” part), but will also include additional information such as illustrations, text blocks, photos, titles, and subtitles to tell a specific story. It generally has a conclusion or call-to-action. Some infographics do not even contain numeric data.

Infographics for Dummies

infographics_book1Author Justin Beegel and his Infographic World team create infographics for clients, and have included information about their process in Infographics for Dummies. It’s a comprehensive book that starts with basics about infographic lifecycles and runs through the concept, design, creation, publication, and promotion of the finished piece. This book provides the information any team needs to create and publish an infographic. Beegel included chapters on how to use the most popular tools (Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop) and brief discussions of online tools specifically for creating infographics. The focus tends to be from the agency perspective, with many references to client needs, approval processes, and branding requirements, but there’s plenty here for individuals to learn.

As part of the Wiley “for Dummies” series, Infographics for Dummies highlights the practical tips and points to remember with larger, easy-to-scan icons. The reader can find great advice, real-world examples, and additional material available at the Dummies.com Web site.

Unfortunately, the examples don’t always follow the book’s advice. A graphic trying to show the benefit of adding context with color (p. 125) shows the data in varying shades of blue that are so similar it is difficult to distinguish between them. A great rule of thumb appears on page 120 about limiting the title to 5% to 10% of the overall graphic, but some of the book’s samples (such as the ones on pages 139 and158) have titles that take up a quarter to a third of the whole piece. There was very little about accessibility concerns such as contrast levels, choosing colors that color-blind people can distinguish, or sizing type for readability.

Infographics for Dummies focuses on the infographic design elements and how to combine those elements into a cohesive whole. If you already know Photoshop or Illustrator, or know that you won’t be using these tools, the hefty chapters devoted to the step-by-step graphic manipulation features of each won’t be helpful. The sections on finding good data (chapter 5) and the list of places to find additional graphic inspiration online (p. 151) contain information that is useful in many contexts.

One interesting part of this book is the short two chapters that make up Part V: The Part of Tens. Chapter 14 is a list of ten current infographic trends to follow, such as the move toward tablets, increasing interactivity, and the use of infographics in multilingual environments. Chapter 15 talks about ten uses the team sees for infographics in the future. Though the topics in both chapters are treated at a superficially high level, together they make up an important list for moving forward in infographic design.

Infographics for Dummies is a terrific description of what made Infographic World so successful in this space. It might be the inspiration for creating your own commercially successful, beautifully designed infographics.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures

infographics_book2Dona Wong studied with Edward Tufte at Yale, spent nine years as the graphics director for the Wall Street Journal, and now shares her hard-earned knowledge with us in The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics. Wong takes her own advice to “simplify, simplify, simplify” and packs tons of information into a mere 158 pages.

This book emphasizes the data part about Information Graphics—that is, the visualization of data in graphic form, not necessarily the decorative, explanatory, or purely visual elements of an infographic. Like Tufte, she advocates against the inclusion of extraneous elements as distracting and ultimately detrimental to the point you are trying to make. As you might expect from the Wall Street Journal, the examples relate to business, investment, or general financial information. But it’s all presented in such a clear, concise manner, with both good and bad examples of each tenet, that each section’s point is crystal clear.

The chapters are arranged like a reference book, more of a style guide for good data graphics than a step-by-step tutorial. When the topic is bar charts, for example, we get guidelines on baselines, outliers, negative bars, and more. Chapter 3 goes into detail on the math behind some common data representations, and explains clearly how to choose an appropriate scale, how averages really work, and the pitfalls of working with percentages.

If you need to share numerical data in any way, infographic or not, you’ll find yourself repeatedly referring to this book. If you create data visualizations or infographics now, or think you might in the future, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics belongs on your reference shelf.

Cool Infographics: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and Design

infographics_book3Randy Krum, like Justin Beegel, is president of his own infographic design firm, InfoNewt. He’s also the creator of the Cool Infographics blog (www.coolinfographics.com), a site that gets more than 400 submissions per week of infographics that people think are cool. He clearly has a handle on what works and what doesn’t, as well as a deep first-hand understanding about the current state of the infographic field.

In this book, Cool Infographics: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and Design, Krum steps through the process of creating a good infographic, with in-depth chapters on specific situations and a comprehensive list of online resources and tools for making your own infographics. The book itself is printed on high quality paper, with large margins, clear and crisp page design, and bright colors throughout. Each chapter is written so that it can stand alone, and each chapter’s pages are color-coded so that it’s easy to skip to a specific chapter. This formatting backs up his arguments for the importance of a beautiful design that keeps the needs of the audience in mind.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the high percentage of sample infographics. They’re generally bright, simple messages that convey data with a minimum of extraneous text. Though some are quite large (and thus look overly busy when reduced to fit onto the book’s printed pages), Krum highlights relevant sections and emphasizes the salient points on each as they relate to the discussion at hand. The author uses some samples from his own company along with samples from other sources.

Though it covers in great detail the standard infographic creation process, the unique parts of Cool Infographics are the chapters that are devoted to unique situations, such as creating infographics for internal corporate use, for presentations, and for search engine optimization (SEO). The book includes a chapter (Chapter 4) on creating an infographic résumé that includes dozens of examples in a staggering variety of formats. It is also that rare book that points out accessibility issues (including, for example, good and bad alt tag text strings for online distribution methods).

The chapter on Design Resources (Chapter 7) is comprehensive, covering a variety of tools, software, and data sources without overwhelming detail.

The only minor quibble I have is that the chapter with the most basic information about how to actually go about creating infographics is placed late in the book in Chapter 6, Designing Infographics. I’d much prefer this information before we get into the details of the specific infographic genres.

However, Cool Infographics overall is the strongest of those in this review, with an engaging style, many great examples, and enough information for anyone to get started with their own infographics, whether they have an agency behind them or not. Highly recommended!

Retro Review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

infographics_book4Long before we heard the term “infographic,” Edward R. Tufte was teaching us how to create sharper, clearer data visualizations. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information has been in continuous publication since its first appearance from Tufte’s own imprint, Graphics Press, in 1983, with a second edition released in 2011 containing full-color versions of many of the original graphics. In this landmark work, Tufte describes a set of guidelines for minimizing extraneous information (“chartjunk”) and redundancy (“non-data ink”) to communicate actual data in the most clear, concise possible way.

Tufte does this through extensive examples from throughout history. These images alone are worth a look through his book. For example, the classic graph of Napoleon’s march through Russia was created in 1869 by French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, shows the size of the army, location on the map, time frame, and temperature. Tufte is also clearly a fan of William Playfair (1759–1823), and includes many of Playfair’s works that helped define what we now know as bar charts and time-series graphs.

Tufte spends time talking about graphical integrity. It’s all too easy to lie with a chart, and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information includes many instances of misleading graphics. For example, if you use two-dimensional shapes like a rectangle to show a series of data points, most people will assume the area of the shape represents the changing data point. But all too often, the graphic designer will change only one dimension (such as the height of each rectangle), thus skewing the perceived values. This effect is even more pronounced when using circles or complex shapes like little house icons to represent real estate values. In Tufte’s world, accuracy is more important than any graphic, design, or decorative function.

The book also makes a strong case for removing any element from a chart that does not directly convey data. Tufte takes this to the extreme of sometimes recommending removal of grid lines, tick marks, and frame lines. Many of today’s infographics go too far in the other direction, including elements and backgrounds just to support a theme or make things pretty. Perhaps a middle ground exists somewhere that’s “just right.”

As many others have pointed out, Tufte’s obsession with minimalism does not carry over to his prose style. He has a flowery, wordy style, and isn’t afraid to inject strong opinions into the discussion whether or not he includes objective backup for it.

Since the publication of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte has written and published three other books on this topic. Envisioning Information (1990), Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997), and Beautiful Evidence (2006). These books are all available from Tufte’s own Graphics Press or through Amazon.com. But if you’re really interested in the full Tufte experience, consider attending one of his full-day workshops. Tufte is still offering workshops as of this writing, and he gives out all four books to workshop attendees as part of the tuition. It is a real bargain if you get a chance to attend one.

References

Beegel, Justin. 2014. Infographics for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [ISBN 978-1-118-729238-4. 306 pages, including index. US$29.99 (softcover).]

Krum, Randy. 2014. Cool Infographics. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [ISBN 978-1-118-58230-5. 348 pages, including index. US$39.99 (softcover).]

Tufte, Edward R. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press. [ISBN 858-0001045689. 198 pages, including index. US$32.00.]

Wong, Dona M. 2013. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-393-34728-9. 158 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]

About the Author

Brenda Huettner is a technical writer based in Tucson, Arizona. She’s an STC Fellow, an IEEE Senior member, and principal in P-N Designs, Inc, a technical communication consulting company.

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