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Infographic Design: How to Visualize Data Like a Pro

C.S. Jones April 10, 2024 · 7 min read

From Column Five

This is the golden age of the infographic, but the process behind them is still a mystery to the general public: where does the data come from? How do they come up with the ideas for all these stunning interactive ones? And what data should be made into an infographic in the first place?

An Infographic’s True Purpose

Simply put, an infographic is born when numbers are needed to back up a story, but there’s too much of it, or it’s too difficult to interpret, to just dump on the page. Although the cool factor’s good for bringing in the social shares, it’s not the main reason they’re made.

“The goal of a graphic is not to make numbers ´interesting,’ but to transform those numbers (or other phenomena) into visual shapes from which the human brain can extract meaning,†says infographics and visualization professor Alberto Cairo.
Every infographic has to prove a point, or tell a story, and the design should support that. Professional news teams around the globe are excelling when it comes to infographic production, and we’re here to tell you how they do it.

Gathering Data

Once a news team comes up with a rough concept, collecting the data is the next step. Or it’s sometimes the first, if a news team comes across that data before they know what to do with it.

A lot of it can come from public records. If you need data on the global economy, check The World Bank or for your own country’s, someone like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you need info on a publicly traded company, check their quarterly shareholder reports. Something to do with the lay of the land? Check your country’s geoscience data. The Census Bureau can provide a lot more than you’d think: aside from the predictable demographic stuff, they also chart things like commute times and housing rentals.

If that’s the case, the design team’s lucked out. But some newsrooms prefer to collect it themselves to make sure it’s accurate and can best paint the picture it needs to. “We’ve always thought it better for us to go out ourselves to gather the material that we need,†says the New York Times’s Archie Tse. This can take the form of calling up a company and requesting it, sending a team out to take opinion polls, or interviewing experts.

Even when the data itself doesn’t come from the team themselves, others, like Bloomberg, will create custom algorithms to better organize it, making sure they have a unique spin on it that other newsrooms or independent companies won’t. From there, it’s usually pasted into Excel, or a similar spreadsheet program, to organize it in preparation for creating the graphic.

NYT Info 1

From SND

Telling The Story

Next, the team has to determine whether it actually supports the story they want to tell. If so, they’re good to go on to the next step. If not… An unethical team will doctor it, or present the infographic in a misleading way, to support the story anyway. An ethical team will look for another angle from which to present the data. This often leads to an entirely other infographic concept being created, or the first one being wildly changed.

When the Times was given Netflix’s geo-tagged movie popularity rankings, their initial goal was to create a nationwide map of which ones were the most popular in which places. But that was too broad to highlight the real story within the data, which was revealed in what the different neighborhoods within certain cities were watching, giving them an overview of how class and cultural differences affected viewing tastes. So instead of creating a vague map of the US by county, they created detailed ones of 12 individual cities. “Our focus is mostly on finding interesting or important patterns in the data, and displaying those patterns succinctly,†as their graphic director Steve Duenes puts it.


The design’s rough draft. From SND

Creating The Design

Once the data’s gathered and the story extrapolated, you have to find the best design for the infographic.

“There are two overarching visual approaches to determining the look and feel of an infographic,†says Hyperakt‘s Josh Smith. “In one camp, there are those who prefer to make the raw data beautiful [with] charts and graphs … Those in the second camp … prefer to use illustration or metaphor.â€

The two camps have a similar design process up to this point, but here’s where they split.

Should the team choose the first approach, simplicity is the goal. There are a limited variety of infographic types, detailed here, and most new ones are just various combinations or modifications of the existing ones. And the content usually dictates which one they choose, as with the Netflix map. So their main concerns become colors, shapes, and what text to put where.

The second approach produces more visually impressive results, but is less practical for a news team. For a map of a journalist’s climb up Kilimanjaro, one graphics editor had to use elevation data to sculpt a 3d model of the mountain, then cover it in satellite images of the mountain. If it seems like this is starting to sound more like a piece of concept art than a chart, that’s because infographics are increasingly blurring the line. And research into the details of a scene can be exhaustive. “We don’t want to invent anything,†says Duenes, so the graphics team frequently has to consult floor plans, architectural photos, and satellite image, and it’s not uncommon for a team member to visit the site-Tse has been to Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon to make sure their graphics were accurate.


From SND

If the graphic has to be interactive, that adds yet another layer of complexity. “Developing deep interactive features often means joining hands with a couple of other departments whose staff members have extensive specialized skills,†says Duenes. Illustrators are called in to render charts and locations, animators have to make the transitions, and UX designers need to make sure everything’s responsive and works on all platforms. Some of the bigger newsrooms, like the Times, have separate interactive news technology departments.


From Fast Company

The Aftermath

Even after an infographic’s published, that’s often not the end. the first visualization on a subject is often not the only one. The NYT graphics department, for one, prefers to release a quickie infographic right after a story first breaks, then take their time researching the subject in depth to create more detailed ones later on.

Teams also monitor comments sections for visitors who’ve noticed patterns or facts they might not have noticed: this can even provide ideas for future versions, since “online discussion can expand (or tear apart) your argument in new ways. This collective vetting often means the project is never quite done,“ says Smith. However, “while it is intimidating to let your project become a part of this process, it is also the reason the medium is so rewarding. An intensely scrutinized design is one that has stirred the minds of its audience.“

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About the Author
C.S. Jones

C.S. Jones is a freelance writer, artist, and photographer.\r\n\r\nIn the past, he co-founded an art gallery and worked at a product photography studio. These days, he does photo tutorials (and gigs), online copy, and content marketing for a living. He also writes about webcomics at…

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