Why do you create infographics? Is it just to pass the time, or is there a strategic purpose for it? Maybe you’re trying to educate your audience about some important concept…or market an amazing new product…or advocate for some world-changing cause…
Whatever the reason, you want to change hearts and minds with your work, which means you really want it to stick! Ultimately, your infographic has to be seen, understood, and remembered to be able to have the effect you want.
I’m not here to talk about getting it seen, but there are certainly tactics you can employ to be sure your work is understood and remembered.
I’ve put together a list of five research studies that look at different aspects of information design and data visualization. They all have something to say about creating infographics that will stick in the minds of your friends, followers, potential customers, or just about anyone who sees them!
Chart Junk is Good
In 1990, Edward Tufte, arguably the most influential thinker about information design for the past 25 years, introduced the term “chart junk”. He was referring to cosmetic decoration, or the nonessential design elements that, at best, dumb down visual displays of information and, at worst, obscure and confuse, obliterating sense and understanding.
This has been gospel since he said it, and the data visualization world has collectively looked down its nose at works where ornamental design outweighs the statistical communication.
Luckily for us, someone finally decided to study chart junk! And as it turns out, chart junk can no longer be declared categorically bad.
Let me admit that I’m a minimalist. I prefer simpler design and subtler communication of information. But for some audiences and some data, there is clearly an argument for going a bit chart-junk crazy.
This research shows that people do not have a reduced ability to accurately interpret a highly ornamented chart. In fact, they have a higher ability to recall the chart even two to three weeks later. That’s sticky.
So feel free to ignore Tufte’s other oft-quoted concept and experiment with a low data-ink ratio. You can try devoting more of the “ink” in your data displays to things other than the data.
In a related topic, another study has found (unsurprisingly, but with specific and useful details) that aesthetics matter, even in data visualization. The study authors were focusing on a specific selection of hierarchical data visualizations like TreeMaps, IcicleTrees, Polar Views and Sunbursts.
They asked participants to “reflect on the aesthetic quality of the image” for six seconds, and then they had to “rate the perceived beauty of the shown visualization display”. Additionally, the participants were tested on their ability to accurately understand the data and how long it took to do so (or to give up on the attempt!)
In the end, the study revealed a strong correlation between aesthetics in data visualization and the ability of users to understand what is being communicated. In the study, the sunburst visualization of hierarchical data was ranked the highest, and it had the best overall performance by other measures as well. The authors’ reasoning: “if the user finds a positive affection towards an object, our brains are encouraged to think creatively in order to solve any problem in which the object might present“.
In other words, if you like it, you’ll have more patience to figure it out, even if it’s complex!
Bow to the Glance
Whatever you do in your design, just be aware that your design will only be consumed in tiny, tiny chunks. Humans can only focus on a very small area at a time.
This means that we will look at an infographic, focusing on one portion (likely the middle of the visible graphic, since we have a fixation bias toward the center of graphics), and what we are able to see in our peripheral vision will drive where we look next.
In other words, as this study has proven, it is all about the glance. You have to design your graphics with the understanding that the goal is to determine what the initial glance will be and how to draw the eye to the next place you want people to look.
The short story is that irregularly shaped decorative elements (shapes that aren’t blocks of color and very simple) will not be visible in peripheral vision. Therefore, they won’t be something that a person will see and want to glance to next.
In a large infographic, this may be a counter-argument to the chart junk study we talked about earlier.
You can be creative with your design, but try to stay adhere to a careful strategy of using simple blocks of content to draw the eye.
Let’s Get Emotional
As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Emotions are powerful, sticky things.
If you can evoke emotions in your work, you should. However, as this research has shown, it’s really hard to activate emotion in people. But when you do, especially if you can activate positive emotions, it can have a powerful effect – increasing memorability, visual judgment, and accuracy.
Say it Again
As a proponent of minimalistic design, I hesitate to encourage you to be redundant. The designer in me shudders at the explosion of labels this could encourage. However, as these researchers have found, there is a place for doing more, not less.
For instance, data redundancy is when you repeat the data itself by having bars whose height might clearly reflect a value (because the y-axis is well-labeled) but also including the actual value on the bar itself.
Message redundancy is when non-quantitative information is repeated, like when you use a country flag in addition to the country name for a categorical label. Both types of redundancy, again unsurprisingly, result in an increase in recall and understanding among your audience.
The field of data visualization has not been a hot-bed of research generally, but has more recently drawn a great deal of interest from researchers across a range of fields, both inside and outside of academia.
This research is leading to many interesting discoveries allowing us to create work that both feels right based on our general design experience or intuition and is driven by proven best practices for data communications. By taking what we’re learning and applying it to our creations, we will be able to design more and more effectively, with confidence that we’re creating infographics that stick!