By Steve Bain
Before desktop publishing became just another job responsibility, producing graphically appealing information was a creative endeavor involving a number of creative and academic skills. In this tutorial, we’ll explore some of the basics involved in representing data in creative ways to add interest and engage the viewer. Although the techniques can be used with virtually any graphic application, the examples I’ll use to illustrate my points were created using CorelDRAW.
It often began with a creative design, a little research and technical drawing, perhaps an illustration or two, and then the hours spent actually producing the mechanical art for reproduction. Today, these different stages are often blurred into one big design-and-production process and today’s designer often wears several hats to accomplish the task. The extra effort required to produce an accurate information graphic sometimes outweighs the effort needed to make them interesting and compelling.
What Makes an Information Graphic Interesting?
If you’ve studied effective information graphics, you may have noticed the best ones share certain common characteristics:
- The most effective information graphics are the simplest ones.
- Information graphics use visual elements taken from the subject matter of the statistics they present.
- Statistical data presented should be understood quickly and easily.
- The best information graphics have a clear illustration or design style.
With these characteristics as the goal, approach the design of your information graphic with the considerations covered next.
Start with a Clear Plan
Be sure your researched figures come from a credible source, then decide how best to present the figures. If your data is based variables which change over time your information graphic may following a traditional format such as a bar, line, or pie style. Whatever the case, you’ll need to make a few formatting decisions and come up with a basic design style for each graphic.
Create Your Data Picture
If the data being presented is abundant and/or requires accuracy, use one of the many software tools available to create the basic charting picture. For example, some graphic applications include charting tools that enable you to quickly create various types of information graphics including column, line, scatter and pie graph styles (as shown next). Once the basic chart is created, you can modify (or replace) the objects created by the script to form the basis for the elements in your information graphic.
If you’re manually drawing your graphic, stick to the basic principles of charting. The point of a chart is to give a quick picture of a trend or measurement. The data “snapshot” should be presented clearly without leaving the reader wondering what the point is. Balance the information with interesting elements keeping in mind that not enough data or too much information will lessen its impact.
Present Your Data Clearly
Make your data easily legible. Make your bar chart elements wide and line chart trends thick and dark. Make your reference information – such as tick marks or grid lines subtle. These markers shouldn’t distract from the presentation of the data. If they extend the width or height of a chart, make them thin or short. Along your vertical and horizontal axis place text to serve as secondary information for the reader.
Dress Up Dull Data
If you’re forced to use a basic chart format or you’re following rigid design specifications which don’t allow use of graphics, there are subtle embellishments you can incorporate to make the data more visually interesting. Three factors you can experiment with are colors, patterns, depth, and/or perspective.
When applying color, highlight important points using bright colors and subdue less important elements using dull colors. Make your visual elements bright and bold, and apply other elements such as the background, frame, and text less prominent colors.
When adding depth, shadows are always effective. Make the offset, position, intensity, and direction of your shadows consistent throughout your graphic. Consider adding depth using perspective for a three-dimensional look.
Guide Your Readers Graphically
Your audience eye movement has been studied at great length over the years and how the eye reacts to white spaces and color often affects the communication quality or reader friendliness of your information graphic. Keep in mind, the readers’ eye is a lazy thing and the extra effort involved in digesting jumbled text and/or visuals.
Text, Type and Layout Considerations
Nearly all information graphics feature text mixed with pictures. For textual information, choose a uniform layout for your text such as a flush-left format— your readers will typically read from left to right). Design the layout shape of your graphic to be a nice, neat package. Add a frame if needed, and use this as the container for all the text and visual elements.
Select a single, versatile font style to use—one which ideally is easily read from a distance and which features several styles such as versions for bold, expanded, extended, compressed, condensed, normal and italic. San serif type styles often work best for clear display of titles and labels. It will also help to establish a sizing hierarchy for your text. Make the title bold and at least 30 per cent larger than the next smaller size increment. For example, a 30-point title, would be followed by a 20-point qualifier, followed by 16-point body text. The graphic shown next demonstrates a traditional chart format with the text following a relative hierarchy.
Titles should be brief and clearly identify the subject while text qualifiers often define the measuring method of the information. Body text is typically used for specified information such as labels, legends, and reference axes. Set a limit for the smallest type size, such as 12 points for sources, notes, footnotes and so on. Make the labels brief and easily legible, and the layout well-organized. If the reader gets lost in a sea of words, your information graphic may not communicate effectively.
Use Your Artistic License
Using a little artistic license is a great way to solve the challenges associated with adding interest to a graphic, whether or not your statistical information is included. The graphic shown next demonstrates is a typical line chart where a few simple graphic elements have been incorporated into the picture to add color and interest. Here, a rocket graphic added to the end of the plotted line emphasizes the trend (and the point), while a smoke ring around the data line adds some interest and a finishing touch.
Although an accurate data presentation is often a requirement of an information graphic, you can add interest by dramatizing your graphic representations through size or position—provided the relevant figures are included. If a measured value is too small to present as a visual element, add one regardless and add a text label. If a comparison between elements is too subtle, adjust their relative size.
In terms of artistic license, there are several examples shown here to illustrate how visual elements can be adjusted to illustrate a point. The graphic shown next demonstrates illustrates a rise in personal injuries resulting from recreational activities. In this case, a simple repeated graphic of a climber was used for the comparative values with text added to specify the actual values. The linear fountain fill color in the frame doubles as an outdoor scene-setter, emphasized even more by the simple cliff illustration.
The graphic shown next demonstrates shows a comparison using a graphic symbol to indicate the difference in relative size combined with text to specify the actual values. In this case, the levels of liquid in four test tubes serve as the value representations while the text labels specify the actual values.
Put Your Creative Side to Work
To illustrate some of the other principles at play, let’s examine a few more practical information graphic examples. All of these are ficticious (as are the others you’ll see on these pages), yet they demonstrate how typically dull data presentations can be made into interesting and compelling visuals through effective design.
The graphic shown next illustrates a declining trend in cruise ship bookings. In this example, the scenic setting of the ship at sea forms the frame of the graphic, while the data being presented is overlapped. The perpective shape of the vessel emphasizes the trend in the data line.
The information graphic shown next presents data indicating a decline in construction industry activity by combining an illustration with a line chart. In this case, the heavy equipment symbolizing the industry emphasizes the line trend.
Although the example shown next could easily have been a simple line or bar chart graphic, an illustration of a hammer was used as the plotting reference to show a rise in home renovation product sales. The symbol of the hammer representing renovation activity was repeated for each plotted point creating a simple, yet effective illustration.
A comparison of exhaust emissions between passenger and commercial vehicles is provided in the information graphic shown next. In this case, four separate graphic elements were combined—two vehicles each with a different exhaust cloud. While the cloud levels give a relative comparison, the gradient color applied to the background frame helps illustrate the point of declining air quality.
A comparison between forest fire causes is shown next. In this example, a simple graphic was used as the backdrop scene for actual plotted data lines. The detail shown in the burning trees and smoke is subtle enough not to overpower the line trends which have been applied with bright, bold color and line properties.
As you might notice from the examples shown here, designing effective information graphics requires that you pay close attention to your subject matter. The challenge you’ll face will often be shaping your creative and design ideas to fit the information being presented. But as the expert designers of today’s effective information graphics it’s a practiced art worth perfecting.
Steve Bain is an award-winning illustrator and designer, and author of nearly a dozen graphic design and illustration books.