Using graphics—or, to be more precise, hieroglyphics—to visualize data goes back to prehistoric cave drawings. However, the modern idea of infographics is tied to statistical tools that emerged during the last quarter of the 20th century. That’s when a young graphic artist from the United Kingdom named Nigel Holmes joined the chart and maps department of Time magazine. For the next 16 years, his work there helped define and popularize the type of storytelling illustrations that everyone now calls infographics. (He calls them “explanatory graphics.”)
At the same time, a Princeton professor named Edward Tufte was pioneering a field called statistical graphics. Today, any smartphone mobile app that displays numbers can trace its design to Tufte’s work and insight. As their approaches differ greatly, Holmes and Tufte might protest being mentioned in the same article. But together, their work has influenced generations of data graphics—some great and some quite awful.
To keep your infographics great, here are some suggestions inspired by Holmes and Tufte for improving the infographics you use in your marketing.
- Feature fewer graphics, more data: The elegance of great statistical graphics is demonstrated in how much data can be conveyed through beautiful design. Unfortunately, too many of today’s infographics show garishly blown-up icons and cliched art, overwhelming the compelling story that the data could be telling.
- Work with artists who have mastered statistics and spreadsheet software, such as Excel and Google Sheets. Illustrators become statistical artists when they master the tools and understanding to convey the story locked up in data.
- Understand the Big 3. If you commission infographics, first learn everything there is to know about these three charts: pie, line, and bar. Why? Because nearly everything you will need to explain through infographics will likely be variations of these three classic charts.