An Infographic on the Right Track: Grad School to Google

Though I was once a big fan of infographics, my ardor has cooled of late. Too many of the examples I see just look like clones of each other. But now and then I run across an infographic that is distinctly different, and worth sharing.

Case in point: this interactive graphic from OnlinePhD.org, which steps you through Google’s growth year by year (thanks to Google Tutor for the lead.) The drawing is not outstanding, but the interactivity and engagement are.

Created by Online PhD

Where I think this infographic is on the right track is in suiting itself to the computer. Most other infographics I see are like huge wall posters that you must enlarge and scan up and down to read easily. This one instead lets you click through to a new panel of information. Much friendlier.

I’ve attempted a bit of research on the genesis of this infographic and how it was built, but have come up empty-handed. If you know something more about it, why not share it in the comments?

Writing, Photography, and the Art of Thinking Visually

As some of my recent posts suggest, I’m a big fan of adding visual elements to written content, whether with infographics, illustrations, or photos. For the last few weeks, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not putting too much stress on visual media. The graphic arts are brilliant tools for communication, yes, but words are every bit their match.Camera with "words" in lens

What started me worrying about this matter was a casual comment by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis. In his opening for an article on the quite different subject of photography’s potential to mislead, he made a “painful” admission.  There are times, he wrote, “when photos can tell more of a story than words could ever express.”

Sometimes the urge for a good lead makes you say things you don’t quite mean. But even if Ellis believes his claim, I’m not buying it. Writing can tell a story just as powerfully as a photo. But that’s only true if the writer learns to see and write in a visual way.

One of the reasons a photograph can seem so powerful is that it captures details of an event that many news or business writers might not think pertinent  or appropriate—a facial expression, the relation of people to their surroundings, the sense of place. But writers can see those same details. They just have to recognize their value and put them in their writing.

One writer who does so brilliantly is Steve Coll. Here is his opening paragraph from “The Casbah Coalition” in the April 4th issue of The New Yorker:

The office of the Prime Minister of Tunisia is situated in a three-story white-washed building with an arched Moorish entry. It faces north onto the Casbah, a plaza in the old quarter of Tunis. The view from the Prime Minister’s window is normally serene, taking in a tiled fountain and pruned ficus trees, but, by the afternoon of a day in late February, thousands of citizens had transformed the Casbah into what looked like a squatters’ camp. They had organized a round-the-clock sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and they were joined each weekend by large numbers of like-minded protesters. The fountain was completely covered by tents; ropes hoisted tarps from the trees.

This is visual writing, but it is not simply a snapshot of what the reporter saw. It sandwiches two views together—the ordinary serene picture of the Casbah with an extraordinary chaotic one. It shows the collision of stasis and change, a process of transformation unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not suggesting that writers don’t need or shouldn’t use photographs or other illustrations in their work. Rather, I’m arguing against two dangerous temptations for writers.

First, the simple availability of visual media should not constrain the visual element in our writing. It’s a false choice anyway: I suspect that if you can’t write visually, you won’t be very good at choosing graphics either.

Second, one medium is not inherently superior to the other. They are not categorically different, but lie along a continuum of representational media.

In the end, the key is learning to think with your eyes. The more you do, the better both your writing and the graphics you choose will be.

Three Tips for Simple but Effective Infographics

Angela Alcorn's Advice on Infographics

Last Friday’s post on infographics got much more attention than I expected from an impromptu effort. It’s evidently a topic that resonates with all kinds of content creators, not just journalists. That being the case, it’s not really enough for me to say that infographics are useful and cool and that you need to use them.

That was the essence of a comment from JC, who may or may not be a spammer (suggestion: never start  a comment with “interesting post”). Whatever his motive for commenting, he had a good point: “How ‘bout some tips on getting started?”  Or to put it another way:  Enough with the lectures; show me how to do it!

Thanks to Scott Preusser and his brand-new blog, I didn’t have to search far or long to find useful infographic resources. After seeing my post, Scott wrote one of his own about how, among other online adventures, he did a search and came up with Angela Alcorn’s thorough overview, “10 Awesome Free Tools To Make Infographics.

The articles and resources Alcorn cites are enormously informative, but almost too much so. It would be very easy to get overwhelmed by all the tools and techniques and impressive examples and simply give up on infographics.

As I wrote last week, though, infographics don’t have to be costly, complex, and super-cool. Just remember these key points:

  • You don’t need to be a graphic artist. If you can work with one, great; but if not, you can probably find a simple way to produce the graphic on your own. You don’t need much graphic skill or expensive software.
  • Even if it doesn’t result in a graphic, the exercise of visualizing your information will benefit you. The process will help you better understand your topic, and can highlight unsuspected gaps in your data.

Three Infographic Tips

There are probably more, but over the weekend I came up with three cheap and easy ways to produce infographics. The results won’t make you look like another Jess Bachman, but they will add value for your readers. In some respects, these suggestions are stunningly obvious. But in a way, that’s my point—if the benefit of using a simple infographic is obvious, why not do it?

Borrow an infographic. Why struggle to create an infographic if other people are willing to lend you theirs? Depending on your topic, you may be able to find what you’re looking for in the creative commons collections of Wikimedia or Flickr. Or, if you’re mindful of copyright rules, you can simply do a Google image search. When you find something that works for you, ask if you can use it. More often than not, you’ll find that people are willing to share their work in exchange for an author credit and a link back to their site.

By Bendevlin (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Infographic from Wikimedia

Annotate an image. Using any number of photo-editing programs, you can add text and highlighting to an image to turn it into an infographic. Another approach is to use a browser plug-in like “Awesome Screenshot” for Chrome to annotate anything you find on the Web. Here, for instance, is an example of an annotated screen shot I created that shows how to download an image from PicasaWeb.

Annotated Screen Capture

Annotated Image: Click to Enlarge

 

Make a flow chart. Though you could easily overuse them, flow charts can often clarify written descriptions of processes. You may already have a program to generate flow charts, like Microsoft’s Visio or the Omni Group’s OmniGraffle, but if not, there are a multitude of online options. One mentioned in Alcorn’s article is Creately. Another, which I used to generate the flowchart here, is Gliffy.

Steps to Creating Your Own Infographics: Click to Enlarge

My flow chart may not have a sophisticated background or color palette, but for half-an-hour’s work and my first time using Gliffy, it’s surprisingly polished.

Again, the point isn’t the quality of the graphics. If that’s all you’re concerned with, stick with stock art. But if you want to help your readers understand what you’re writing about, even the most modest attempts to represent your ideas or data graphically will pay big dividends.

UPDATE: I’m happy to report that JC is not a spammer. Thanks, JC!

Infographic skills: No longer optional for journalists

First, a confession: My foremost reason for writing this post is so I can embed a really cool infographic about Google on my blog.

But the fact that I want to do it reflects the power and beauty of infographics. A good infographic combines the visual splendor of print with the accessibility and engagement of the Web. Used well, it can give information an appeal and interactivity that even the best prose cannot match. It encourages your readers to dwell on data they would otherwise skim over.

Granted, infographics of this quality are not easily produced. “Google’s Collateral Damage,” for instance, was produced for SEO Book by infographic specialist Jess Bachman, and presumably did not come cheap or without many hours of planning.

But something as simple as a map or an annotated photograph can qualify as an infographic and enhance the effectiveness of a story. Yes, stock photography is easier. But as Heather Rubesch noted earlier this week, stock art has more than a few downsides. Though it will entail greater effort, a relevant infographic will add far more value.

Infographics are not unique to the Web (magazine consultant Howard Rauch has promoted their use for years). But in this new medium, they have more power, reach, and value.  If you ignore them, your future as a journalist is at risk. When the Huffington Post hired journalism student Chris Spurlock recently, it wasn’t because of the novelty of his infographic resume. It was because in the Web era, the ability to think in both prose and graphics is an increasingly critical skill.

So journalists, content marketers, and writers alike take note: Infographic skills are no longer optional.

Google's Collateral Damage.

Click to enlarge

Infographic by SEO Book