5 rules for infographics that resonate

The best advice I’ve ever received as a designer is to “keep it simple,” because overly complicated design tends to get lost, glossed over or confusing. When I was first starting out, someone even gave me a three-step process for it:

Step 1 – Create an initial draft including everything that I think needs to go into that design.
Step 2 – Put it aside and take a moment to think about it.
Step 3 – After letting it sit for a while, return to that design and try to remove as much as you can while maintaining that initial concept. (This last step, in particular, is one that a lot of new designers don’t consider: Paring something back and trimming the fat on the design, or basically removing instead of adding.)

I use that process when I create infographics, which I find to be one of the most interesting and challenging types of projects for designers. You need to capture the essence and idea of whatever that topic is visually and ensure that the whole story is told through your visuals — with the actual language being secondary. Because infographics can be so challenging, I’ve put together five rules that I like to keep in mind when I create them.

Rule #1. Maintain organization and storyline. Start your infographic process by organizing what it is you need to say, figuring out what all the steps are going to be in the output, and storyboarding it like you’re building a movie or even a storybook for children.

Rule #2. Show, don’t tell. The foundation of any good infographic is the ability it provides for people to visualize the data, and it means being able to display the information in a way that is universally understood. If your infographic is cohesive enough that it tells that story just through that visualization, then I think it’s working. Often, though, there might be one graphic element that’s in there representing whatever concept you’re talking about—and there’s a lot of text that gets put in. People sometimes feel they need to overly explain an element and don’t consider that the audience for this is going to connect those dots by themselves. If you have a strong headline as a cue, most of the time that is enough to help.

Rule #3. Think outside the box (literally). A lot of the time we constrain things to the square page that we’re constantly viewing everything through: We want to put things in a box and have all of these elements contained nicely in those little spaces. This one isn’t exactly a rule, but when you come across a graphic where you have elements that are breaking that frame and connecting with each other in visual ways, it really can help move the story along. You don’t necessarily need a numbered list of the steps in the infographic, there’s way to connect those thoughts visually by not catering to that standard layout all the time.

Rule #4. Tell a story. A fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable than the mere pronouncement of that fact, according to Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner) Think about the story you want to tell and tell it, and make sure your infographic has the storytelling components of a specific beginning, middle and conclusion.

Rule #5. Clean things up with color. I see a lot of infographics that are all over the place with a huge palette of colors. Sometimes the chaos of “everything and the kitchen sink” is the aesthetic you’re going for, but usually limiting your palette and really focusing on how color can guide the direction of those infographics can go a long way toward keeping a consistent idea and tying together themes.

These five rules should help ensure your infographics are on target. Overall, though, when thinking about which elements to use in your infographics, it really comes back to keeping it simple. Think about the content you have to work with and the things that really stand out and are pushing the narrative forward, and then think about the things that are in there for the sake of being in there. Keep the things that work, and be prepared to cut back on the rest.

For more on infographics, take a look at the infographic I put together—and yes, it is an infographic about infographics.

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