Engaging infographics at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Michael Opsteegh is about to present a session called Planning and Creating Engaging Infographics. I’m delighted to be here, having survived the Atlanta Ghost Tour last night and just two hours’ sleep.

Introduction

Michael started by discussing the graph on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. Like most of us, he looked at the chart but didn’t read the article. So the only information he got was from the infographic on the side of the page.

Infographics are a powerful way of making information accessible and showing the relationships between pieces of information. You can weave a story consisting of graphs, images and more.

This presentation will focus mostly on the presentation of data, rather than the maths. The focus is on planning and building charts, graphs and larger infographics.

Examples of infographics

We saw a number of examples, and Michael talked us through the plus and minus points.

Infographics can be very persuasive, and can convey a lot of information.A graph, for example, is easier to digest and remember than a lot of text.

Sometimes they are overused. As a result, some people don’t like them. Still, they’re overall very popular.

Infographics can also be fun. Michael showed us one based on a batman theme.

There’s also a lot of room for misrepresentation.

Uses other than selling products and services

You could use an infographic for your resume. A website called visualize.me will produce an infographic based on your LinkedIn profile. But Michael recommends that you do the infographic yourself, rather than ending up with one based on a template.

There’s an infographic showing the wealth gap in America. It incorporates videos and charts, showing what people think the income difference is versus the actual situation. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to see who created the infographic. If someone isn’t prepared to acknowledge they created an infographic, then it may be difficult to trust it.

Skills required to create infographics

The creation of an infographic involves several disciplines. Michael has combined them into three areas:

  • Liberal arts: Your infographic needs to tell a story, and it needs to be interesting. Companies are looking more and more to creative people to differentiate their products and services.
  • Social sciences: You need some knowledge of human behaviour and cognitive sciences. How your infographic will be received and how to convey the information.
  • Mathematics. You need to recognise if you’ve misrepresented your data, and understand the basics.

What about graphic design? If you have the skills, that’s great. Otherwise, hire someone to do the design. You give them the information and the specification for what the chart should look like.

Tools

You need to be able to record your thoughts and ideas, and also questions you have. Michael finds Evernote very useful, because he can jot down notes wherever he is. Evernote syncs the notes from his phone, tablet, PC. You can also include photos, links, videos.

Excel is ubiquitous and powerful. Use it to sort your data and produce preliminary graphs, to help see what your information will look like. Use pivot tables to sort and filter data. Michael demonstrated how you can drill down into data via pivot tables, then generate a graph.

Illustrator or PhotoShop are useful, if you are going to design your own infographic. Michael recommends Illustrator, because it’s great for vector tools and also includes a graph tool.

Visualising data

Bar charts, which can be vertical or horizontal. These are good for comparing figures side by side.

Pie charts are OK for representing data as a whole, and the different percentages within them. But research shows that people aren’t capable of seeing the distinctions well. A doughnut chart is just like a pie chart, with the centre missing. This is even less useful than a pie chart, because you lose the angles at the centre. Bar charts are usually better.

Scatter charts are good for finding patterns in the data.

Line graphs are a little like scatter charts, except that you’re dropping the points at regular intervals.

An area chart is basically a line graph filled in. Good for demonstrating changes over time. The Wall Street Journal chart this morning is an example.

Venn diagrams show relationships between discrete objects. The overlap shows the shared parts.

Flow charts (pedigree charts) show hierarchy or workflows.

Pictograms or iconographs show set numbers. Michael showed a page with a number of figures of people. Each figure might represent 1 million, for example.

There are many other types, like radial charts and maps. See the Wall Street Journal’s guide to designing infographics. Also the Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer.

Research

This is a critical stage. You need reliable and accurate data before you can move forward.

Identify your sources: must be current, reliable, non-biased.

Get permission to use the data. If a company conducted the research, for example.

Editing

This is where you decide what story you’re going to tell, and how you will tell it. Be aware, as you’re editing, that people will call you out if they find an anomaly or if they want to view it in a different way. So, play with different ways of viewing the data. See if there’s another way to tell your story.

Look for outliers in your data, and see how they affect the message.

What about rounding your numbers? Make sure you round at the end, after you’ve plotted the data. If you do it before, it will skew the graph.

If you’re going to place charts side by side, make sure you’re not comparing apples and pears. Make sure you’re using the right figures to illustrate a point. For bar charts, always start the axis at zero. For other graphs, if you need to start elsewhere make it very clear.

If you’re missing data, you may still be able to create the infographic. If you’re missing more than 2 points out of 10, then your infographic will not be reliable. Look at the data that’s missing and decide if it affects the perception of your story.

Plotting

This is the most fun part. The point where you actually draw the infographic.

Make sure you’re staying true to the data. Remain aware of the maths involved.

If you’re plotting several graphs for the same infographic, you’ll need to wireframe them. A wireframe is basically a set of boxes or circles (in Illustrator) to represent where the bits of data will go. The advantage is that you can move the sections around, before actually drawing them. Look at where the infographic will appear, to decide whether it needs to be tall and thin, or wide and short. Make sure your dimensions are correct.

Reviewing

Make sure your infographic visually represents the data that it ought to. Get a couple of colleagues to take a look and give you feedback. Ask them if there’s anything that worries them.

Ethical considerations

Throughout the process, make sure you don’t misrepresent the data.

Remember: Correlation is not causation. Michael showed us to line graphs that could show that ice cream consumption leads to murder.

Make sure the story you are trying to tell needs telling, and that it will benefit the audience.

Accessibility

There was a lively discussion around accessibility. Michael recommends you put a textual description on the page, near the infographic. An alternative is the new “longdesc” attribute. Don’t use the “alt” attribute, as it’s intended for a short description.

Thanks Michael

Thank you for an informative introduction to infographics. I’m keen to get my hands dirty creating one!

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 8 May 2013, in STC, technical writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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