Communication Infographics
by
Aidan Rowe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0192

Introduction

In the early 1970s, the cosmologist Carl Sagan designed an information graphic for the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, the first vehicle that would leave our solar system. Created with Frank Drake and Linda Salzman Sagan, this gold-anodized aluminum plaque was designed to visually communicate information about the people that launched the spacecraft to any being that would find it, namely extraterrestrial life. While the word did not exist at the time, this plaque—still travelling in space—is a far-reaching example of an infographic. Infographics are graphical representations of information, statistics, or data that are designed for communication. Infographics—a portmanteau of information and graphics—present complex information clearly and concisely and are found in signs, maps, charts, and displays. They may provide a point-in-time snapshot of a specific instance or detail time-based narratives. Infographics can be found in environments (e.g., signage or museum displays), in print (e.g., newspapers or textbooks), or in digital form (e.g., interactive displays or self-contained narrative animations). At their core, they aim to communicate complex information in visual form quickly and clearly in a variety of settings. Successful infographics draw upon principles from a range of fields including visual communication design, psychology, analytics, usability, and statistics. Through the translation of data into more accessible and approachable forms, infographics improve understanding, decision making, and memory. Additionally, the use of visual forms of communication may open up the information to larger and more diverse audiences. Infographics are a form of visual communication that falls within the encompassing field of information design, which also includes practices like information visualization. While infographics and information visualizations often share histories, content, and processes, they are distinct from each other. Infographics often focus upon discrete and contained amounts of information while information visualizations frequently deal with very large and changing data sets from multiple sources. Infographics often deal with this contained information in very visual and illustrative ways that are specific to the content. While the visual form has been used to communicate for millennia—for example images inside the caves of Lascaux and later on navigational maps—since the mid-18th century, there has been a popularization of the use of infographics. In the late 20th century, newspapers utilized infographics as a means of presenting complex information in an understandable and attractive format. Publications like USA Today, The New York Times, and the United Kingdom’s The Guardian have been key in developing and employing infographics to present a wide range of information. The Internet and the growing use of social media have drastically increased the usage of infographics as a means of communicating information in concise visual form. The rise of online tools to create infographics has also driven their usage and led to criticism of their efficacy and value. Importantly, infographics are not just translations of statistical or quantitative data into visual form; ideally, they employ a range of established conventions and practices to put forth a larger argument or reason.

Practical and Technical Publications

A wide range of publications are available concerning the construction of infographics; more recent publications focus specifically on the subject while earlier works are often broader concerning the communication of visual information with sections or practices applicable to the creation and consumption of infographics. This selection is focused on both the production of infographics and gaining a better understanding of contexts related to the use of infographics and information communication. Wong 2010 is aimed at a wide range of practitioners that are interested in constructing infographics, while Mauldin 2015 focuses specifically on librarians and information specialists. Lankow, et al. 2012 and Knaflic 2015 approach the use of infographics primarily through a business and marketing lens. Tufte 2008 is a key work that examines exemplars of information visualization to contextualize and document best practice in visually communicating information. Gobert and van Looveren 2015 presents a collection of information design projects, balanced by interviews with a range of prominent practitioners to provide a useful overview of the discipline. Wildbur and Burke 1998 uses an international best practice approach that is aimed at creators of infographics and other information visualizations. Cairo 2013 presents a compelling and in-depth look at the histories and practices of information graphics.

  • Cairo, A. 2013. The functional art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book covers significant ground in relation to infographics, communication, and visualization. Broken into four sections (foundations, cognition, practice, and profiles) the publication delves into the theories and practices of information graphics, with a particular emphasis on designing to communicate in a publishing scenario (newspapers, magazines, websites, etc.). It is accessible, richly illustrated, and informative for both the producer and consumer of infographics.

  • Gobert, I., and J. van Looveren, eds. 2015. Thoughts on designing information. Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller.

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    This edited publication brings together a collection of visual communication projects that explore a range of information design areas; these examples are then balanced and expanded by interviews with sixteen information designers covering a range of practices and fields. The authors also discuss information design education, employing projects from their students at LUCA School of Arts in Brussels, Belgium.

  • Knaflic, C. N. 2015. Storytelling with data: A data visualization guide for business professionals. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119055259E-mail Citation »

    Straightforward, accessible, and concise. While this publication is aimed at business and marketing professionals, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in how to communicate clearly with visual information and data. Highly pragmatic, the volume is broken into ten chapters and is richly illustrated to assist readers to better understand how to create more effective visual communications.

  • Lankow, J., J. Ritchie, and R. Crooks. 2012. Infographics: The power of visual storytelling. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

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    In this book the cofounders of the design firm Column Five set out to provide an in-depth understanding of the value, purpose, and possibility around infographics. Although usable by a wide range of audiences, it is most likely beneficial for those interested in the business and marketing possibilities afforded by infographics. Richly illustrated, the publication is straightforward and covers a fair amount of territory.

  • Mauldin, S. K. C. 2015. Data visualizations and infographics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise how-to book that is primarily aimed at librarians and other information specialists that are interested in creating infographics and visualizations. The book features key examples and tutorials linked to the use of a variety of software packages including many online, free tools.

  • Tufte, E. R. 2008. Envisioning information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In his second general audience book, Tufte dissects the unique requirements of moving from what he terms the flatlands—paper and the computer screen— to information visualizations that effectively communicate complex data. His most design-orientated book, Envisioning Information employs an array of maps, diagrams, interfaces, graphics, tables, and charts to provide practical advice on visually communicating complex ideas and materials.

  • Wildbur, P., and M. W. Burke. 1998. Information graphics: Innovative solutions in contemporary design. London: Thames and Hudson.

    E-mail Citation »

    Employing a designer-focused approach, this publication draws upon a wide range of international material to identify how to organize and present information. Organized into six sections that break down different categories of information graphics, each section contains case studies that examine specific projects in detail.

  • Wong, D. M. 2010. The Wall Street Journal guide to information graphics: The dos and don’ts of presenting data, facts, and figures. New York: W. W. Norton.

    E-mail Citation »

    A pragmatic and highly useful book for designers of infographics. The author has a long history of working with data and information—most notably with The Wall Street Journal—and in this book, documents how to communicate visual information effectively. Valuable as a practical reference tool.

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