The Great Infographic Graveyard in the Sky

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The Internet is littered with infographics. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly – they’re present on almost any blog you click on. Here, senior online copywriter Oliver Pyper takes a closer look at what content creators can do to ensure their infographics avoid finding a home at The Great Infographic Graveyard in the Sky.

I love infographics. They’re a genuinely great way to make information accessible. With a well-structured visual narrative, well-written copy and sound data, you can take the sort of stuff which would be deathly boring in conversation, and turn it into a share-hungry piece of viral fodder. Awesome.

Actually, let’s rephrase that. I love good infographics.

And good infographics are in the minority. The rest of the stuff proliferating the web is the graphic design equivalent of shovelware.

The problem is, everyone has realised they’re a good idea. And when people start to believe the idea will win through on its own merits, and put less emphasis on content, they’re doomed to failure.

Remember when the Spice Girls were big? And then loads of unscrupulous managers put together their own girl band knockoffs with distinct ‘personalities’, who were carted off on school tours, accompanied by a flurry of second-rate press releases not-so-gently goading the tabloids into giving the members cutesy nicknames? That’s where infographics are right now.

These bands didn’t succeed because, unlike the Spice Girls, they didn’t have any original ideas, or good songwriters, or half-decent production values.

But this doesn’t mean infographics aren’t a viable option for shareable content marketing professionals. Good infographics are very, very shareable, and very, very good.

To use the pop band analogy again, if you’re going to make an infographic, don’t try to recreate the Spice Girls, stake your claim on your own territory.

Like the Spice Girls, you’ll need:

  • Original ideas – Your initial concept needs to be interesting enough, or it’s a no-goer.
  • Good ‘songs’ – In other words, great content. If the content isn’t there, you’ve got a hollow, uninteresting shell.
  • Good production values – Make it look nice, for goodness’ sake.

If you fall down on any of these points, you’ll create something that’s destined for the Great Infographic Graveyard in the Sky. There’s a tonne of examples around, if you want to get an idea of what a bad infographic looks like.

As for making a good one…

Do your research

We want to learn something new, which means you’ve got to do your research. Finding some easily-accessible stats and regurgitating them visually does not a good infographic make.

So this means either gathering your own data (through surveys, meta-analysis, your own sales records), or pointing out a link between two sets of data that nobody’s pointed out before. (The sales of teapots are directly correlated to the aggression level of feral cats in Scotland? Who’d have thought it?)

And please, don’t just make stuff up. As well as being lazy, this is a journalistic cardinal sin which could get you into trouble.

Aim for engagement

If you exclusively sell float valves for toilet cisterns, it’s understandable that you might have learnt a lot about float valves for toilet cisterns. But you might be the only person in the world who thinks float valves for toilet cisterns are interesting enough to deserve an infographic.

If your concept, content and design don’t engage the reader – if they don’t tell a story, and cover some interesting ground – then your infographic is about as universally relevant as an instruction manual for float valves.

BUT. I firmly believe that any subject can be made relevant, with the right angle. Find the angle, and you can make float valves interesting. Usefulness of float valves as bludgeoning weapon in zombie apocalypse? How the invention of the float valve can be linked directly to the election of Tony Blair as UK Prime Minister? There’ll be an angle somewhere.

Don’t rely on established clichés

The coining of the term ‘infographic’ may have been the single biggest factor contributing to the flood of bad infographics online.

See, ‘infographic’ is just a fancy, digital-Dave way of describing INFORMATION PRESENTED VISUALLY. And people have been presenting information visually for a very long time. Think cave paintings. The Codex Borbonicus. Egyptian funerary art. Maps. Atlases. Ikea assembly instructions.

But as soon as the label ‘infographic’ was slapped on this stuff, it immediately began establishing boring, boring tropes. Imagine an infographic, right now. I bet you’re imagining chunky, blocky bar charts and pie diagrams, accompanied by copy in different sizes and ‘fun’ fonts.

If this is genuinely the best way to visually present your idea, then go for it. But remember, people have been finding new and different ways of presenting information visually since we first crawled out of the oceans (probably).

Don’t let production values let you down

Great idea. Thorough research. Tight visual narrative. Excellent.

Now slap it all together with some clipart, save it as a low quality jpeg so you can’t read the text, and… bingo! You’ve just wasted hours of work. Have a slice of cake.

Don’t boggle your audience

This is really important. Cluttered, confusing infographics are all too common.

Remember, you’re trying to make information more readable. Again, if you don’t do this, you’ve fallen into the trap of assuming the idea of an infographic is more important than content, context and purpose. Don’t lose sight of what your infographic is for, and who you expect to be reading it.

Here’s a quick test. Is the data you’re trying to present easier to make sense of if it’s presented in a table, or simply as text? If the answer’s yes, your infographic is doing the opposite of what it’s meant to be doing.

Make sure you have an audience

One of the most depressingly common reasons for infographics failing is because few people ever see them.

You could have created an incredible infographic, but if your blog has a readership of 20, it’s unlikely any one of them is going to take the trouble to set it on the road to virality.

This is why it’s crucial to have an outreach/dissemination strategy planned out too.

In the end, it comes down to luck. But having a quality piece of content and a decent amount of brand power can significantly up your stakes in the infographic lottery.

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