The limits of infographics

by Francesco Franchi

An information graphic has to be an intelligent representation

My written contribute to Malofiej17 Annual Publication, p. 54
Index Books, Spain 2010

INTELLIGENCE literally means being able to understand and quickly comprehend what we see. In order to help us graphic designers use visual metaphors which are a powerful aid to human thinking. During the course of human history people have used numbers, shapes and illustrations to share their ideas with others. Today images play an ever more prominent role and the demand on our creativity to visually convey ideas and meaning has increased proportionally. Diagrams and data graphics have become the language we turn to embody abstract data and at the same time to abstract from complex reality.

Infographics are not just a translation of what can be read to what can be seen. They help us understand, create and experience our reality. They reveal the hidden, explain the complex and illuminate the obscure. They definitely are an exercise of journalism. To construct effective visual representations of information, graphic designers must filter the information, establish relationships, discern patterns and represent them in a way that allows the consumer of that information to process and digest meaningful knowledge.

Designing an infographic means finding a better way to explain a concept, to present it and in the end create a representation that works.

REPRESENT literally means to present again or anew. Representations provide the basis for all communication. We think in terms of categories and the relationships between them. Through mental representation we can convey ideas and things that are not physically in front of us, and store those mental representations in categories and characterize them by a degree of abstraction. We then have the ability to generalize, to form associations, to recognize relationships and to feel comfortable in their organization.
While words and sentences are part of the verbal communication system, images and graphical representations are the key elements for visual communication.

Because infographics use a combination of images, words and numbers, they operate in a hybrid system touching both fields, the verbal and the visual. Because of that they offer us the greatest opportunity to increase the effectiveness of our communications.

In today’s world aesthetics have become increasingly important when conveying messages. And as information designers, our greatest challenge is to be sure the concepts we use are easy to understand. That is never simple.

While you can say that infographics are at the mercy of data designer’s imagination, they should not be works of art. Applying a graphic style to the information is not nearly as important as giving a graphic form to the actual content, with a clear understanding of how that content will be perceived and processed by an audience.

It is inevitable, however, for designers to leave an element of their personality in their work. Part of the process that goes into creating an infographic is the natural flow of information which serves to reveal new insights and draw conclusions from the core of the data. Through this process the designer gives form to the data which allows his or her creativity and experience to flow and blend together in a cohesive form which conveys the message. It is the information designer’s responsibility to shape a view of the data with a particular goal in mind and not just act on creative impulse. The process must contain a combination of simplicity and complexity in order to be effective.

What is the balance between simplicity and complexity?

Simplicity, above all, is the key to an effective infographic and the best way to achieve simplicity is through the intelligent reduction of the elements and objects that distract from our message. Careful editing is crucial. As difficult as it may be, it is important for the graphic designer to delete excessive portions of the design but still insure that the intrinsic value of the message is not lost.

Keeping the message central can be achieved by creating layers of communication. How can we do this? First of all by hiding some elements of the design and then reintroducing them further on. Another way is to create an intelligent counterweight by blending a sense of quality through the addition of details and signals based on explicit messages.

The issue of complexity can be connected to the amount of data to be presented. A huge amount of information brings the necessity to a good space organization, so how the elements are arrange in the space is important. Even if the design is composed of many elements, the structure the graphic designer uses can make it appear simple.
It is a process of sorting elements, labeling them, integrating and prioritizing them.

We should always be aware of the message and how it will be perceived by the reader.
Design is not just about making things simple, but it is also about innovation, stimulation and creating a satisfying and provocative route for a designer motivated by his own creativity. There is, in fact, a complementary relationship between simplicity and complexity that influences design choices to produce surprising and informative data diagrams. By shaping their view on data, designers can choose to introduce a level of complexity that allows just the right amount of contrast to drive profile, focus, and definition. Through their choices they can determine the degree of balance within a design by depending on the context and target audience for the resulting data presentation. Professional and visually literate audiences will appreciate the designer’s effort to present sophisticated and subtle designs.

The danger, however, lies in the designer’s possibility to access increasingly larger design databases. They are even so seductive and lure the designer into a creative nirvana challenging the gap between the information that needs to be presented, and how it is expressed. New software offers a dazzling amount of information and tools that give shape and meaning to massive amounts of data. In many cases the tool may become the message, and in other cases serendipity can point the way to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

For that reason we must not lose sight of the fact that the primary role of the designer is to help the reader access the data and then, and only then, surprise them with the fluency and creativity of the design. The best solutions in fact, are the ones that are characterized by aesthetic appeal and easily understood. Through the use of Information graphics we can present complex issues in an easily digestible and recognizable form, without which much of the data would remain obscure.

5 comments on ‘The limits of infographics’

Gestalten Infographic Course with Francesco Franchi — Jo Minnitt Portfolio — 27 June 2013 23:50
[...] A great article on Infographic design by him is below – linking concepts of UX with Data design:Francesco Franchi – The Limits of Infographics [...]
Seeing is Believing – The Art of Visual Storytelling | Blografie — 10 June 2013 09:56
[...] course, infographics have their limitations. Editorial and information visual designer Francesco Franchi emphasizes the importance of a balance between a simple structure and design that make it possible [...]
Infographic Thinking, Berlin // I walked and I thought // Jo MinnittI walked and I thought — 18 November 2012 18:48
[...] Francesco Franchi – The Limits of Infographics [...]
Ivan Colic — 23 May 2012 18:01
Your work is amazing and your attention to detail is inspiring to me. Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa!
Mijburgh Beukes — 25 April 2012 01:23
Hi Francesco This is a great article and has been well written. I have been following your work for the past year and I have to say that I am a big fan! I wish I could get hold of some of your printed work, but it is a little bit hard to do, as I live in New Zealand! Anyway, keep up the great work!