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Book Printing: An Approach to Designing Infographics

A print book designer colleague of mine had a problem with a graphic last night, so I called her up, and we discussed infographic design at midnight (she’s a freelancer, and she was on deadline). Her design wasn’t working.

Now infographics weren’t as prevalent when I was doing print book design in the ‘80s as they are now, perhaps because we have so much more information now to digest, an overload of things to focus on, and a decreasing attention span. All of these can explain the explosive growth of infographics.

Wikipedia defines infographics as “graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly.” Wikipedia goes on to say that infographics “can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends.”

So they address both sides of the brain. They give the left hemisphere of the brain the logical, analytical information it craves, but they present this in a spatial and holistic, image-based format, which the right hemisphere of the brain likes.

Back to My Colleague

My colleague had positioned the initial elements of an infographic, condensing information about the birth rate, registration rate of new births, and birth registration offices. She had the beginnings of a similar infographic for a national ID card. (My colleague does work for government and non-government world-wide organizations, so this graphic was to be inserted in a print book for a small country in Africa.)

Needless to say, it was urgent, so I helped her at midnight.

The Problem

My colleague already had the icons for the registration rate (a circle with a blue highlighted segment surrounding a large numeric percentage), the registration method (a pencil and icons of two sheets of paper), and the registration centers (icons of administrative structures that looked like a series of tiny Supreme Court buildings).

In the center of the three icons (each with both an image and a short description) she had placed an icon of a baby. Unfortunately, the baby was the same size as the other icons, and the other icons just seemed to float around the baby. There was no implied visual connection between the baby (the births) and the administrative logos.

What added to the problem was that all of this visual information needed to fit in a narrow horizontal bar across the page. Otherwise the infographic would not fit in my client’s design grid along with all the other page elements.

The Solution

First my colleague and I discussed the need for simplicity. Infographics can convey a lot of information, but the icons used must be immediately understandable. Readers have little time, too much information, and limited attention spans, so they need to “get” the icon instantly. When my colleague understood this, she revised the image for the registration offices to include a man and woman standing on either side of an office counter (a more personal image than the small buildings), with the woman holding up an application form.

My colleague did a good job of condensing all of this visual information into a simple icon. The other two icons she chose to keep. However, she aligned them on one baseline (as noted before, the initial infographic had included three icons in a triangular formation around the baby). She then put a large bracket to the left of the three icons (joining them all visually). To the left of the bracket, she put the baby (a larger image than before).

My colleague also used color to her advantage. She highlighted the title (birth registration) in orange on a gray background (that comprised the entire rectangular boundary of the infographic). She also made the bracket and the baby orange. The three smaller icons (registration rate, registration method, and registration centers per 100,000 people) she highlighted with blue and white. She treated all three in the same way visually by using the same colors.

Because she had made these graphic choices (color placement and baseline alignment), the three blue and white icons “read” as being of equal importance and similar nature, and the larger baby and the bracket “read” as being the entity relating to those three icons. In short, my colleague had visually defined the relationship between the baby and the three administrative icons using size and color.

This was a success because the reader’s left brain hemisphere would absorb the analytical information more readily if the right hemisphere of the brain could first see a visual relationship among the pieces of information.

My colleague then made a “national identity card” icon and, using the same color distribution (and replacing one of the other icons with a fingerprint icon representing a “biometric ID”), created the second half of the infographic (to the right of the first, all within a narrow strip across the page). The consistent use of the blue and white for the minor icons and the orange for the heading, the bracket, and the main icon (in this case the national ID rather than the baby) unified the design visually while showing the reader what information was similar and in what way the various pieces of information were related.

The reader could absorb this information immediately, in a single glance, based on the color placement and spatial relationships. Presuming the reader could grasp the relationships through the graphic treatment (right-brain, spatial understanding), this would encourage the reader to go ahead and address the content of the infographic more closely (left-brain, analytic understanding).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Infographics are one of the main design/editorial tools in use today. They convey a lot of information quickly by first showing the interrelationships (interactions, levels of importance, flow of activity or information) and then including selected data to support the visual treatment.
  2. Simplicity is key. You have only an instant to grab the reader’s attention. Simplify the design, and use consistent color placement, simple type treatments, and a simple design grid to give structure to the visuals.
  3. Make sure the icons are immediately recognizable, even in a very small format. Consider using numbers (percentages, for instance) where appropriate as both a large graphic element and as a statistic (i.e., both as content and as the graphic treatment).
  4. It doesn’t hurt to show your infographics to others. They may be immediately understandable to you, but another set of eyes can often help you simplify and clarify the meaning and flow (i.e., successive steps in a process, as in a “flow chart”) of the information you’re trying to condense for the reader.
  5. Keep in mind that infographics are deceptively simple. They convey a lot of information quickly, both visually and in terms of their content. Make sure you don’t accidentally mislead or confuse the reader.

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