Infographics, by definition, are informational. Charts, technical diagrams, and maps may be clear to the designer or author, but readers often have difficulty discerning a meaning. Without making a lengthy social comment, most Americans have poor map and chart reading skills.
Charts and Graphs
Graphs are used to express numeric information as visual comparisons. Graphs are most effective when comparing extremes. If you are not comparing data, then don’t use a chart.
Graphs should be extremely clear. Make labels and legends easy to read. Legends, or keys, should use colors or patterns with great contrast. Remember, some readers are color blind.
Charts and graphs must be easy to read and understand. Use several if necessary.
Keep charts and graphs as simple to interpret as possible. Most Americans find charts difficult to understand. We won’t comment on why this is, but keep it in mind. Business audiences should be better equipped to understand such information.
There are some ways to keep charts and graphs clear:
- Avoid three-dimensional effects,
- Start most graph grids at “zero” points,
- Label graph elements, and
- Contrast colors and patterns.
Pie charts show how parts relate to a whole.
Use pie charts to compare parts of a whole. If the data do not add up to 100 percent, then a pie chart is not acceptable. Pie charts are popular because of their unique appearance.
Notice that the chart includes percentiles next to each slice, as well as a legend key. We could have included how many people were surveyed and how many chose each flavor. However, that would violate the primary guideline for charting data: keep it simple to read.
Bar graphs compare similar categories.
Bar graphs compare different categories that are commonly measured in the same manner and relate directly to each other. Incomes, test scores, and production levels might be charted using bar graphs.
Line charts illustrate trends.
Trends are charted in line graphs. When charting one measured value for a single category using three or more datapoints, use a line graph. An example of one measured value is the average income of in-house designers. Comparing two years, a bar graph is acceptable. Measuring three or more years, use a line chart.
Data charted using a bar graph often belongs in a line chart. Line charts illustrate trends with better clarity than other graphs.
High-low-close charts are suited to comparing trends, especially financial data.
Financial data are charted using high-low-close charts. This family of charts can be used to graph any relationship with three values. Test scores, for example, can be charted using this format by making the “close” the average score.
High-low-close charts can have as few as two points per x-axis stop – high and low – or as many as five in stock table – high, low, asking, offering, and closing. The more data points, the more difficult to interpret. Stock market enthusiasts get very good at reading high-low-close charts.
Diagrams show orders, relationships, or processes.
Designers use diagrams to explain an order, relationship, or process. Diagrams are special types of graphs. Many types of diagrams are in fact called charts.
Family trees, historical timelines, and the illustrations on toy boxes showing how to easily assemble the track in less than 20 minutes are all diagrams. Diagrams can replace paragraphs of text while clarifying information.
When you want to show the organization of a company, an org chart is the diagram of choice. An org chart places the people with the most influence at the top. As management styles change, so do org charts.
Companies shipping products to several countries like to use process diagrams. Process diagrams are instructions with as few words as possible. There are a lot of bad process diagrams.
Advanced process diagrams feature several branches, meeting along a main chain of events. Several processes might be taking place concurrently. The results of these steps eventually are combined. A car manufacturer, for example, might have three or four assembly lines, which eventually converge to make a car.
Computer programmers are, usually, familiar with flow charts. Flow charts trace decision making and logic. Standardized symbols indicate input, choices, and output.
Flow charts work well as diagrams of corporate policies, as well. We’ve seen hospitals use flow charts to help nurses follow procedures. If certain criteria are met, specific treatments are given to a patient.
Timelines & Durations
Using timelines and duration charts, a publication can explain how long it takes to accomplish a goal. The construction industry uses duration charts to track the building process, from planning to completion.
Timelines help readers understand how events are related. It is hard to understand Word War II without knowing how closely related it was to World War I.
Tables make information easier to analyze. Graphs are based upon tables.
Tables organize data for better analysis. Tables place related values in columns and rows. There might be times when a table accompanies a graph.
Scale and Round
To make charts easy to interpret, it helps to use numbers with four or fewer digits. Since some numbers are clearly larger than 9,999, adopt a scale appropriate to the values. Adopting a scale also forces a rounding of numbers, so make sure it is appropriate to do so.
Make Data Logical
A table is a grid of information. Each column has a meaning, as does each row. You need to determine if a row or a column represents the subjects of your table. If it is not clear what takes precedence, then readers miss your point.
Easy to Read
Tables must be printed in a manner that is easy to read. Avoid tinting cells to highlight information. If you want to draw attention to items, use inverse print, bold type, or colored print. Shading items just makes them hard to read.
Use maps only in extreme emergencies. Many readers cannot understand them.
Charts are difficult for some people. Maps are impossible for many. When you use a map, be sure it is easy to read and understand.
Top is North
Do not play with tradition. The top of a map is north. While it might be obvious to you, not very many people remember north, east, south, west. Many companies print maps of their sites placing the entrance at the bottom. Do not do this. The entrance goes wherever it really is. It only belongs on the bottom of a map if the building faces south.
If you have to include a map of a small area in a document, experiment with inset maps and other reference tools. An inset map is a small map, inset into the frame of the larger, used to help readers see where the detailed area is located.
If your readers are located in various states, for example, and you want to refer to an event in a specific state, include a map of the entire Unites States. You can then use shading or other effects to highlight the state you are discussing. Even on a small scale, such as an article about one part of a city, you can use an inset map.
Good technical drawing fall between artwork and infographics. Technical drawings reveal how a machine or other object is assembled. Anatomy books contain really great technical drawings.
Summary & Tips
- Graphics should do no harm.
- Keep graphics as simple as possible.
- Use meaningful scales and rounding.
- Avoid maps in most documents.