Infographics are often added to a dull page to make it look more flashy. They fulfill this task very well, but infographics can do so much more. A good infographic is not only complementary to a text, but -if done right- makes a long explanation unnecessary.
The idea is: complex data becomes clearer and easier to understand when displayed visually. The viewer discovers patterns himself and draws his own conclusions. Of course a striking picture attracts attention much faster than a piece of text or a row of numbers. You can find many good examples of infographics, but unfortunately, because it has been a ‘hype’ lately, also a lot of bad ones. In a good infographic, you discover connections that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, it gives you insight into proportions, and reveals the underlying structure and concepts. Bad infographics use impressive design to disguise that it is nothing more than a few numbers pulled together:
If you are considering using an infographic in an e-learning, ask yourself these questions:
What is the message I want to convey?
What am I going to explain? It is important to keep an eye on this during the design process. Every decision you make should serve the main goal. Avoid unnecessary decoration. An example of an infographic with a clear message is our video about pensions. It’s a video, but the graphic style and information density make it more like a moving infographic. You can watch it on YouTube.
Is an infographic the appopriate medium?
If you can explain something in a few sentences, you don’t have to create an infographic. The cliché is: a picture is worth a thousand words, but some words are worth more than a thousand pictures. If words do fall short, an infographic can help. They come in a plethora of shapes and sizes, and each has their own purpose. Even a simple bar chart or pie chart can already qualify as an infographic, but it may also display complex visuals such as a schematic of the circulatory system or a geographic map.
A good example is an overview of all the money in the world by cartoonist and physicist Randall Munroe, better known as xkcd.
He could have put this information in a large figure, but by displaying the amount of money as a surface area you get a much better picture of the proportions.
Can I make it interactive?
In addition to static infographics, it is also possible to animate the infographic or to add an other form of interaction. The viewer has control over the infographic and decide what to view. This, of course, offers many more possibilities. For example, a graph can be built up in steps with a slight delay between them. You might be able to adjust the timeline yourself or you can highlight specific cases in a larger picture.
In the following example, the flow of money from German companies to German political parties has been visualized. At first glance, it’s a confusing tangle of lines, but in the interactive original you can use your mouse to hover over a political party to only highlight the payments to that party. Or the other way around: you can see to which parties a company gave money. The interactivity makes the information comprehensible.
Do I have interesting numbers/relations/connections that lend themselves to visualization?
One of the most famous infographics avant la lettre is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (Charles Minard, 1869). It shows the number of men he started with, the temperature on the way back, and how many made it home.
Why is this a good example? First, it is a suitable subject. There is a number that can be linked to a distance. Secondly, it provides insight into the dramatic difference between the start and end situation. Also the causes of the decrease in the number of soldiers is clearly visible by showing the temperature and the rivers that had to be crossed. The viewer can draw his own conclusions and vividly imagine what a hardship the men must have gone through.
Read Edward Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information for a comprehensive analysis of this flow map and other good examples.
This example shows how important it is to find a good dataset with numbers that can be plotted against each other. For example, the number of conservative voters per district in the last 20 years, the use of anti-depressants by birth year and income, the number of travelers getting out at every bus stop of bus 38, to name a few.
Do I have the knowledge, skills and tools to create an infographic?
It’s not easy to create a good infographic. You need knowledge of graphic design, data visualization and, if you want to create an interactive infographic, also of interaction design and programming. And to start you have to have the right data, which may require some digging.
The tools you need may vary, but you will at least need to use graphic design programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Interactive infographics require animation programs like Animate or an HTML editor. Excel can be used to edit large datasets. If you want to be able to use a dataset interactively an (online) database will have to be created.
If you have interesting data at your disposal, but do not have the other necessary skills, I would recommend hiring a professional to achieve a successful result.
Infographics in e-learning
Any type of infographic can be used within an online course or even as a stand-alone e-learning. An infographic can show developments over time (see our retirement video) or they can highlight an interesting detail out of a large dataset. In my opinion, the biggest advantage is offering the user (complex) information in an attractive and clear way and allowing him to discover the message by himself.
In a text the writer organizes his thoughts in a fixed order. The reader is forced to follow a certain trail of thought. An infographic gives users the freedom to discover a sequence, make connections and draw conclusions. A good design challenges the user to dive deeper into the subject and really explore the infographic. Information retention will be much higher when a student discovers connections himself. An image is a alternative way to memorize information, so students who are more visually oriented may process an image more easily.
In short: infographics offer many possibilities to make learning more attractive and to make knowledge easier to digest, but to really be worthwhile, visualization of the underlying data has to create added value and the infographic has to be made by someone with the right skills.