In this age of information overload, many people are looking for innovative ways to share data, concepts and ideas within their organizations, with colleagues in the field, and with the public at large. Many of the tried-and-true methods of communicating with large audiences, such as writing long reports and giving "talking head" presentations, are more likely to bore than inform readers and attendees.
To better educate and influence their audiences, many professionals have begun to use visual representations of the data they want to present. In the past, this has meant including pie charts, bar graphs and color-coded Excel spreadsheets in reports or presentation packages. But creative professionals are going beyond the traditional approach and using images, unique content, and design elements to tell visual stories that engage their audiences.
Infographics, which can provide audiences with information at just a glance, are a key element of this new approach to communication. In this article, we intend to briefly explain what infographics are and what they do, describe three online tools that were developed to help non-designers create infographics, and suggest ideas for using infographics in an information environment.
What is an Infographic?
Infographics blend text and data to visualize trends and patterns in a way that allows the audience to quickly grasp the information being presented. Infographics appeal to our sense of visual recognition by using icons or other images of varying size or number to represent data.
Infographics are usually colorful and depend on color coordination or contrast to help tell their story. Since infographics are visually appealing and simple to understand, they can easily be shared through social media and can be incorporated into presentations of many kinds.
Until recently, creating infographics required advanced graphic design skills. Graphic artists applied their knowledge of design principles and elements and used specialized software programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Publisher, and Scribus. These programs were very complex and expensive and required designers to scale a steep learning curve to produce polished results.
With the advent of new online tools, infographics can now be created using simple drag-and-drop interfaces, raw data from Excel spreadsheets, and clip art. These tools allow non-designers such as information professionals to create custom infographics that fit their data visualization needs.
Three Infographic Tools
Piktochart. Piktochart offers users a canvas on which to view their selected theme. Themes are templates that are designed with a general focus in mind, such as health, transportation, or education. You can add, change or delete icons and images within your theme. If these items don't fulfill your needs, you can upload your own images.
Piktochart allows you to add hyperlinks in the online version of an infographic to enable your audience to jump to another Web page, if necessary. You can also edit the color, size and fonts of the text to better suit your needs. In addition, you can use charts or interactive tabs to better communicate information within the infographic you create.
Piktochart users can sign up for either a free or paid account. The free version of Piktochart provides access to 6 themes and 400 stock images. If you cannot find an image you want within the stock images Piktochart provides, you can upload up to 10 image files of your own.
The simple drag-and-drop interface allows you to begin designing your infographic as soon as you create an account. Design tools include image manipulation and access to basic shapes, graphics and text. Graphics are arranged by theme for easy access and searching. The color and rotation of any image or text object in the infographic can be customized easily using the toolbar menu.
Piktochart allows you to create graphs within the program rather than having to save a graph as a JPEG file. You simply save your data set as a CSV (comma separated values) file and upload it, and Piktochart walks you through the process of creating your graph. The infographics you create can be shared immediately after completion or downloaded for use at a later time. The free version of Piktochart will place a small watermark in the lower corner of all of the infographics you create.
The paid version of Piktochart offers three different account options. The first option is an educational account, payable on an annual basis, that allows students and educators to create infographics. The second option is a monthly payment plan for professional users who are not yet ready to commit to an annual subscription. The third option allows professionals, agencies and brands to pay an annual subscription fee to create their infographics. The paid accounts provide access to almost 100 themes and allow users to export their images without the Piktochart watermark.
Easel.ly. Easel.ly is a free infographic creation tool that, like Piktochart, has a simple drag-and-drop interface that allows you to arrange and manipulate the elements within an infographic. You can start from a blank slate or draw from one of 15 available themes. You can upload your own artwork or make use of Easel.ly's extensive clip art collection.
Easel.ly allows you to create infographics on a variety of backgrounds, including themes designed for viewing on mobile devices. Another useful feature in Easel.ly is a grid that allows you to measure and design important elements.
Although charts and graphs from Excel or other workbooks can be uploaded as images, you cannot upload data to create a chart within Easel.ly. Easel.ly has a toolbar shortcut for easy duplication of text and images within an infographic.
The color, size and opacity of all items in an infographic can be customized, and the order of the layers of images in an infographic can be controlled using the toolbar. All graphics created in Easel.ly can be easily and quickly downloaded as a JPEG file, shared using a Web link, or embedded using the code provided by the Easel.ly site.
Infogr.am. Launched fairly recently, Infogr.am is an online tool that allows you to create infographics and publish them on the Web or distribute them through social media. The site offers free and "pro" versions of the tool; those who sign up for the pro version can download their creations as either PDF or PNG files.
As of this writing, you can choose from among six templates to create an infographic. Once you choose a template, you can select from among several chart or graph designs. You can include a chart or graph in your infographic or publish it as a stand-alone image. You can also change the text in the theme and add pictures.
Two of the more innovative features of this tool are the options to include a digital timer within infographics published online and to embed a video that is hosted on YouTube or Vimeo. While infographics are auto-saved in Infogr. am, you cannot undo a change as easily as you can in Piktochart.
Developing a Game Plan
Now that you know what infographics are and have a feel for some of the online tools that can be used to create them, what factors should you consider before designing infographics? While the tools discussed in this article have made it easy for non-designers to create infographics, they cannot create a game plan to ensure they effectively convey their message to their targeted audience. You, the user of these tools, must develop such a plan.
With this in mind, here are some questions you should ask yourself before starting your work:
* Who is your target audience, and how can you best reach them?
* What is your overall communication goal?
* Can your "story" successfully be told visually by an infographic?
* Which infographic themes will best fit your project?
* What changes will you need to make to the theme, if any?
* How will you properly introduce the topic to your audience using an infographic?
* What key ideas or data need to be highlighted to make the infographic effective?
* What information details should be included to improve your data visualization efforts?
* Which graphics will work best for your data visualization purposes? Which graphics might you need to upload? Where will you find these graphics?
* Which information resources will you use, and how will you cite them? Are they reputable and up to date?
* How can you keep your infographic balanced? Too little information might not tell a convincing story, while too much may unnecessarily complicate it.
Helping Data Come Alive
Information professionals who use the preceding questions to help themselves develop a strong communication plan will often find that infographics can be used to great effect in many aspects of their profession. Almost any project, presentation or results set that involves data can be enhanced with the use of these powerful visual aids. Situations where infographics can be used effectively by information professionals might include the following:
Reference statistics. Visually display your library's usage and/or reference question statistics, with each type of query represented by its own dedicated icon or color.
Timelines. Create a timeline of important events or projects in your library. You can use clip art images to depict the number of books moved, databases added, or computers made available over time.
Maps. Show the distribution of your library's patrons on a map.
Lesson plans. Have students create an infographic to describe what they've learned, or create an infographic to describe a project you want them to undertake.
Annual reports. How many blog posts did you create this year? How many tweets? How many articles did your patrons receive? The answers to these questions are ripe subject matter for infographics.
How-to projects. Create a tutorial to help answer frequently asked questions in a fun and visually attractive way.
Lists. Develop an infographic that lists your favorite resources, tools or accomplishments.
These are just some of the many ways you can combine numeric, textual and graphical information to create an easily digestible, complete picture of the story you wish to tell. By providing your audience with information at a glance, you can ensure that your data stand out when you present your findings or project.
Infographics help your data come alive in meaningful ways, and using the tools discussed in this article ensures the data will engage your audience more effectively than if you use only words or a chart or graph. In the past, creating infographics has been the domain of graphic designers, but with online tools such as Piktochart, Infogr.am and Easel.ly, information professionals can now develop strong visual images using their own data. Any of the free or paid versions of these tools can be used to great effect to meet your communication needs.
Lampe, Nicole. 2013. "Draw Me a Story: A Recipe for Effective Infographics." Blog post, 12 February. Nonprofit Technology Network.
Lepi, Katie. 2012. "10 Fun Tools to Easily Make Your Own Infographics." Blog post, 19 August. Edudemic.
Piktochart. "Structuring a Story for Your Infographic." Web page.
Smiciklas, Mark. 2012. The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audiences. Indianapolis, Ind: Que Publishing.
BY SOPHIA GUEVARA, MLIS, AND MARY-MICHELLE MOORE
SOPHIA GUEVARA is the chair of the Consortium of Foundation Libraries and a regular contributor to the Council on Foundations' RE: Philanthropy blog. She can be reached at email@example.com. MARY-MICHELLE MOORE is an MLIS candidate at Rutgers University and interlibrary loan assistant at the University of California-Irvine's Langson Library. She maintains a personal blog at www.universalbookdrop.wordpress.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.