By Dennis McCafferty published January 7, 2014

How to Keep Infographics from Ruining Your Visual Content: 8 Rules

infographics-cluttered exampleHave we devolved into a society of such die-hard “visual learners” that we can’t be bothered with text formats at all? Apparently so, because it’s difficult to call up content marketing these days without finding a link to the now-ubiquitous infographic — increasingly in lieu of more traditional, complete forms of content delivery. 

Unfortunately, too many visual content assets are incredibly painful to wade through — over the top with a busy mishmash of off-putting graphics. (Some designers appear to be getting paid according to the number of images they can cram into one stand-alone.) Low-quality visual content like this lacks narrative-driven cohesiveness, which translates to effective brand promotion. Too frequently, they are the products of designers attempting to impress, well, other designers. Which is why I call infographics the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of the 21st century. Eventually (I hope) content marketers will carefully examine the wealth of misfires and conclude that there’s nothing there, and then focus on creating visual content that supports a content marketing message instead of muddling it. 

Recently, Jason Miller wrote about the benefits of infographics for CMI. Not that I take issue with his “plus” points — they’re all valid. But the advantages they provide can rapidly transform into liabilities when the execution fails — which, unfortunately, happens more often than not.

Given my bent on the subject, I recently enjoyed a lively forum based upon a rather controversy-stirring article about the topic from Cyrille Vincey, founder of Qunb, a Boston-based data-visualization service. The article triggered much debate, thanks in large part to its blunt headline, “Why We Hate Infographics (And Why You Should).” I give Vincey a few well-earned style points for his direct, take-no-prisoners tactic and for including visual content examples to demonstrate various shortcomings. Still, it didn’t stop a number of forum participants from defending even the most bewildering of the samples for their “brilliance,” among other accolades. Which made me wonder: Were we looking at the same visual content? How can something be praised as “brilliant” if it’s too busy and confusing to make any sense?

Given the divide of opinion here among accomplished professionals, I do not seek to bury infographics; rather, I recommend the following best practices to make them at least bearably functional. To illustrate my takeaways, I sought input from fellow content marketers. Here’s our eight-point improvement plan for visual content:

1. Resist TMI

An infographic should not use Every Single Detail available. Yes, we know the researchers worked hard. But that doesn’t mean you have to include every factoid they came up with. By the nature of sheer logistics, this kind of image presentation will have users’ heads spinning before they even attempt to comprehend it.

Take the example below, which attempts to introduce users to the differences between conservatives and liberals in our great nation. While the research is excellent, I’m feeling a bit slammed. Every good piece of content should seek to educate. You’re plopping the user down into your virtual “classroom” and need to engage in order to inform. So tell me, honestly, if your civics teacher hit you with something like this on the first day of class and said, “Learn it. The test will be tomorrow,” what would stop you from melting into a puddle of panic sweat?

government-left and right-infographic

If demanding that level of brain drain from students would be considered over the top, then why are we thrusting it upon our intended target audience? Unlike pupils, users don’t have to attend your class. They are free to click off the page as they wish. This graphic — which has some very good information and images — would have satisfied its purpose far, far more successfully had it been a bit more selective with its information and fostered a cleaner, more streamlined user experience.

“You don’t have to put everything plus the kitchen sink into one image,” explains content marketer Erik Sherman, who is also a blogger for CBS MoneyWatch. “You can take leftover images and put them in a release or white paper, to be made available. Simple but nice design lends itself better to being used, rather than a flashy attempt to pictorially recite the history of the world.”

For inspiration, think of our old friend, “Bill from Capitol Hill” from the classic Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, which skillfully explained to generations of children how exactly laws are created without overwhelming the young audience (if you’ve forgotten, you may thank me for the following “visual learning” content bonus):

bill illustration-schoolhouse rock

2. Focus on context 

Quite a few infographics suffer because of a lack of important information — information that lends a greater understanding to the “who cares?” part of the question. If we’re displaying year-to-year sales of shoe trees, for example, the target audience needs to know if we’re talking U.S. only or worldwide. Similarly, annual profits should be defined as net or gross. Somewhere on the page — small type at the bottom is fine — survey findings must provide some methodology details, especially with respect to the number of respondents. (There’s a huge scientific gap between a survey with 50 research participants and one with 500.) My apologies to the designers who feel all of these facts get in the way of the aesthetics, but information does matter.

3. Focus on a narrative thread 

Every picture tells a story, of course. So why do a glut of infographics toss out numbers without driving home classic, simple narrative threads — whether it’s the corporate-brand prince saving the customer princess or revelations about what the numbers say about how we live, work, and play?

“Many plug in stats without outlining a story,” says Alyssa Mattero, Senior Manager of Digital Content Marketing for Chicago-based Perfect Search Media. “They don’t show the meaning behind the data.”

In this case, again, context is important. It must briefly convey the classic narrative elements of problem/solution, cause/effect, boy meets girl, etc. “One of my pet peeves is mislabeling a graphic that contains a few factoids as an infographic,” says Amy Buttell, an Erie, Pa.-based content marketer. “A true infographic has a narrative arc and tells a story about a specific subject which is informative but not promotional.”

To demonstrate that I actually like some (but not many) of the literally hundreds of infographics I’ve reviewed for this piece, here’s a good one: Splashpress Media and IOIX created it in 2012, neatly introducing users to Pinterest. It does not attempt to “flood the zone” by including every single fact the researcher discovered about Pinterest along the way. It clearly states the educational “story” to be told. And the visuals — which some designers would challenge as being too simplistic, but I’d disagree — don’t overpower the senses.


Pinterest – The Social Media Darling Of 2012: Infographic by Infographiclabs

However, the pursuit of business storytelling can lead to an excess of text. Which leads us to the next best practice…

4. Make the infographic part of the messaging campaign — not its sole representation 

As always, it’s advisable to design any campaign with a range of formats/platforms in mind. After all, you don’t exclusively turn to Twitter and other social media at the abandon of traditional content, do you? (And if you are doing so, then that’s probably fodder for another CMI piece.) Anyway, while we seek to tell a tidy story within the narrative, we can’t tell the entire story, because that would lead to something that content marketers would invent next, say, the “textographic,” or something else equally annoying. Let’s not go there, OK?

Instead, use the infographic as one of many essential ingredients in your visual content campaign “soup.” Narrative within can be challenging because the words can’t “drown out” the images. “If you are getting overly verbose, you can package the infographic along with a blog on the topic,” says Jordan Barrish, Market Analyst for Capterra, an Arlington, Va.-based business-software company.

Similarly, you can package an infographic with everything from Tweets to white papers… so why limit the target audience to one message-delivery experience when you can expose them to several?

5. Designate a “lead” image 

As an extension of the last tip, it’s key to not only pick and choose your images carefully, but also to designate a central one that dominates the page to express a core theme.

“Infographics are meant to be beautiful, easily digestible, and highly visual,” says John Brissette, a graphics and production specialist at IMN, a Waltham, Mass.-based digital-marketing firm. “They are for those who have trouble visually processing numbers into meaningful conclusions, or for those whose eyes glaze over when presented with them. [It] will fail if it doesn’t capture the reader’s eye from the very start, or doesn’t support a single, main idea or result set.”

This one from Pepto Bismol caught my eye: While I love burgers, hot dogs, pizza, onion rings, fries, ice cream, and cookies, this infographic loads my “plate” with too much of a good thing. It would have worked better with fewer food items — probably one or two should have been the primary focus here:


Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

Mike Redaelli, Creative Director for the Baton Rouge, La.-based content-marketing firm of Reputation Capital, says the wordsmiths and the designers need to think of themselves as imaging architects. He advises marketers to use data points to support a main thesis — don’t deviate into endless tangents that distract from the theme.

“You might think that structuring an infographic is a pretty obvious task,” Redaelli says. “It either reads from top to bottom or left to right, right? Nope. While less obvious, the hierarchy of information is much more critical. The viewer should be able to get the most important information and, as they drill down, should see more granular instances of supporting information. This presentation is similar to a well-designed website or a newspaper layout. It should guide the viewer through the material, subconsciously reinforcing and differentiating primary information from secondary and tertiary information.”

6. Know when to just say “no” 

There are moments when a content marketing team has to summon the wisdom to realize that an infographic simply isn’t the right format for a particular message, as opposed to making it an automatic “given” with every campaign.

“Because they’re ‘So Hot Right Now,’ our profession is trying to turn any little idea into one, when it might be a better fit for something else,” says Cara Giaimo, a content marketer for Cambridge, Mass.-based SimpliSafe Home Security. “A haiku is not the best format to teach someone how to cook pasta Bolognese. An infographic isn’t the best way to explain the greater complexities of health care. There are too many which look like half-baked ideas — just gathering some information and data together and putting it on a page.”

In other words, you have to start with the content.

“If you begin brainstorming with, ‘Let’s make an infographic! What should be in it?‘” then you’re doing it wrong!” says Callie Malvik, an inbound-marketing specialist for Collegis Education, a Chicago-based tech company specializing in the education sector. “Every content conversation should start with, ‘What is the most compelling way to share this information?’

7. Be transparent 

Just because it’s “visual” content doesn’t mean you can take shortcuts on the vetting. If you’re using original research from your company or client — and infographics with “new” intriguing data will always trump those that essentially round up existing numbers — you must review it thoroughly to ensure it accurately reflects the true intent of the source material. If you use previously published research, you have to identify the primary source.

“When sources of data are buried — sometimes without proper links to check the information — it makes the process of checking it out so much more difficult,” Sherman says.

8. Dazzle ’em 

Once you’ve successfully cleared these hurdles, then — by all means — blow out your creative impulses with a highly visual, appealing design. When content marketers resort to the tried-and-true pie charts and bar graphs, they’re not trying hard enough.

“Use basic principles of design to lead the reader’s eye from point to point,” Brissette says. “Play with the color, the scale, and the positioning. Don’t be afraid to have something fall off the grid, or fly off the page. Readers will share infographics if the numbers are intriguing and the design is impactful.”

With that in mind, I’ll highlight the following successful infographics. They are perfect attempts to educate with the words while “inviting” with the art. They have good information. They use compelling images. And they are streamlined and clean. And to illustrate how infographics can enhance understanding of an eclectic range of subjects, my picks cover the topics of reader engagement, mobile trends, and (just for fun) NFL Scouting Combine “nerd” stats. Enjoy!


Source: culturelabel 

Source: culturelabel 

Like any other content form, the infographic must result from the product of thoughtful collaboration. The “word folks” and the “picture folks” come together and mesh their insights and talents together and produce something which practically dares the target audience to soak it all in. Indeed, with these practices put in play, you may find that your infographic is as irresistible as, well, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, onion rings, fries, ice cream, and cookies.

Need help creating unique, impactful infographics, or other visual content? Check out our list of 27+ Handy Tools.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Dennis McCafferty

Dennis McCafferty has served as the Director of Content for W2 Communications since December 2010, responsible for a wide range of strategic content marketing-messaging efforts for tech-industry clients. Previously, he launched his own content business, DM Enterprises, and worked with clients such as IBM, Advanced Micro Devices, USAA, Nationwide, Ritz-Carlton, MasterCard, GM and many others. He also served as Senior Writer at USA WEEKEND, for which he interviewed Presidents Bush and Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Peyton Manning and Shaquille O'Neal, among others. During his time with WEEKEND, he appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ESPN and numerous other outlets.

Other posts by Dennis McCafferty

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  • Ann Bevans

    Dennis, love this post. I can’t tell you how many clients have come to me lately and said, “I want to do an infographic on [a topic that cannot be presented as an infographic]. My immediate reaction is to back away slowly. Infographics are incredibly difficult to do well, and your best practices and spot on all the way. Thanks!

  • Owen Hemsath

    Probably the most helpful post I’ve read on infographic creation especially with the “pick one main image” part. I am a key over-whelmer!

  • ronellsmith

    Infographics now litter the web. That’s unfortunate, too, when you consider they are great vehicles for sharing information. The problems arise when companies assume infograhics are the be-all and end-all, thus feeling the need to create them at the expense of other visual assets.

    In my experience, less is better: a few data points and just enough text to tie everything together.


  • Dennis McCafferty

    Thanks for the nice feedback, folks. I’ll weigh in a bit later and I have no problem with those out there who have contrary perspectives/criticisms, especially from the design side. Best, Den

  • Maureen Monfore

    Very helpful, especially the bits about telling a narrative and TMI. But did anyone else notice the giant typo in the Pinterest infographic? Perhaps that should be another piece of advice: proof your content.

    • Dennis McCafferty

      Actually, I must have been looking at a shortened version of that infographic. I haven’t seen the entire version until this posted today and I now would say there’s a bunch there that could have been pruned to give it a simpler, cleaner presentation.

      • Maureen Monfore

        True. The “how to” info especially would be better in a different content format. But the demographic data is great.

  • Diana Losch

    Thanks for the helpful best practices!

    Visual Communications are evolving and infographics are a relatively new media. (Think web user interfaces 2005). Overtime communicators will learn from examples that rise to the top.

    A good designer understands that content is king and how to effectively accentuate a hierarchy of messages and tell stories visually no matter what the media. In the case of infographics, content developers and designers working closely together from the start make for best results.

    Bottom line: Communications media messages are all screaming for attention in a saturated world so no matter what we do we better be relevant and to the point!

  • Jennie Linnett

    I think that the less is more message is valid – I wonder though if the Pepto Bismol was designed to push demand – certainly gives me indigestion looking at it.

    • Dennis McCafferty

      Funny! Hey, where’s the “like” button on this page? Oh well …

  • Jennifer Peterson

    I like to think of Infographics as today’s “flashcards” – best used to capture key elements of a story. While they often can’t relate an entire concept, they speak volumes to a visually-oriented audience. You can’t hang a text blog post on a wall, unless you are a crazy content rebel, but an clean, articulate graphic adorning your cubicle can be a keen reminder. Design = Infographic grammar. Poorly designed graphics have negative impact – don’t even get me started on poorly written graphics.

  • Samuel @ ReferralCandy

    This post is very relevant, especially now that almost everyone is trying their hand at making infographics. I think that one of the reasons for all the overflowing information in infographics is that people think of them as visual means to represent all their data and information. While that is valid, there is a risk of going too far, something which has already happened.

    When we write a post, we take care not to include too many points, and to have a central narrative to guide our readers. As a result, we only pick the best ones, and leave out the not-so-important ones. When we look at infographics, we sort of view them as a means to put in all the information that we were forced to toss out previously.

    We should remember that infographics are primarily a visual way to tell a narrative, much like a blog post. When we look at them that way, and not primarily as a visual data representation, we reduce the risk of stuffing too much data, and focus on telling a story.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • Dennis McCafferty

      You’re welcome! Knowing what to leave out is as important as what to leave in … Hemingway would have made for a good infographic designer.

      • Samuel @ ReferralCandy

        Haha agreed!

  • gordongraham

    Finally! A meaty contribution to CMI that goes beyond mindless boosterism of the latest fad! I really appreciate the examples of poor and effective uses of infographics. Like anything else, infographics have their place, but they take time, research, and expertise to produce. And they can’t tell every story to every audience. This piece is probably the best post I’ve ever read on CMI. Please do more like this.

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks, Gordon. Dennis has a lot of great insight in this piece.

    • Dennis McCafferty

      Gordon, I’m absolutely floored. Thank you and sorry I didn’t see this until now. Client work has been kicking up to “11” lately. But this makes my day. Thanks again.

  • Dennis McCafferty

    Just a note to all that I really, really appreciate all the kind words and insights. This sure was a hot-button topic, wasn’t it? I am even just a bit bummed that we didn’t get an opposing perspective from perhaps some of the folks who are on the side of more lavish, involved infographics — maybe on the design side. But, that said, I’m glad so many here read and appreciated this and shared it out there in social-media land. And thanks to the CMI for continuing to allow us this wonderful resource for information and insights and debate and exchange.

  • Jimbo

    I’m still in the process of reading and attempting to digest this – really well thought out and engaging piece of writing.

    I couldn’t help it, though –

    Pinterest Infographic, first paragraph, first sentence.