Guest Post by Karl Gude
Infographics: Inform, Illuminate
What makes infographics cool is that they can be extremely effective at explaining every conceivable topic in any industry for any reason. What’s being defined as an infographic nowadays ranges from decorating simple text blocks to make the content more appealing to incredibly complex data visualizations that reveal content because there’s no other way to understand it.
I started out doing infographics in journalism (we called them “news graphics”), and the beauty of having creating them in this field is that news knows no topical boundaries; it can be about anything. Besides making infographics on the obvious breaking news stories (like bombings and plane crashes), every conceivable topic was fodder for making an infographic to help readers understand what was going on. We made news graphics on political, business, entertainment and sports stories as well as on all sorts of technical, medical, and scientific advances.
This experience led me to realize the value of employing these sorts of visual explainers in other industries outside of journalism, and this has helped me be a better teacher and adviser now that I’m in academia. For example, PR firms, businesses and other organizations need to better engage their audiences, scientists need to explain their research to each other as well as to the lay person (like funders) and federal agencies need to make sense of huge data sets. The list goes on.
The good news is that resources for creating infographics are exploding! There are a multitude of new free online tools for designing, creating and packaging charts, maps and diagrams (I’ve stored a great many on my wiki freevisualtools.wikispaces.com, so help yourself!) and more are coming along every day. Also, many more freelance designers and firms are learning how to make them. It ain’t as easy to make them from scratch as you might think, so don’t entrust your administrative assistant to make one just because he knows Photoshop! Your brand identity and credibility are at stake here!
But designing an infographic only comes after you’ve decided who your audience is, what message you want to convey to them and what information is needed to tell that story. This is where most infographics get tripped up, by conveying the wrong story. Always keep the dictum, “Form follows function” in mind every time you begin an infographic. Otherwise, your beautifully designed graphic will be all hat and no head.
In a nutshell, infographics can often convey a message to a target audience more effectively than text alone can. Or not. Done poorly, infographics can confound more than illuminate, and to me the key task of an infographic is to make people feel smarter, not dumber. This is when infographics are definitely NOT cool.
Karl Gude is the former Director of Information Graphics at Newsweek magazine and The Associated Press. Karl left Newsweek after a decade to spearhead the first information graphics program at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. Karl also teaches a class on the creative process and on social media marketing.
Karl is a visual storyteller, artist and writer who consults with corporations, scientific institutions and government agencies, including the NSF and the CIA, to help them create effective infographics. He also writes a regular column for the Huffington Post.
Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-gude/
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