One of the most important steps in creating an infographic is organizing your research. As an infographic designer, your job is to take a tremendous amount of information, data and stories, and boil them down to visual concepts that your reader can easily understand. This means you need to know more about your subject than you end up putting into your infographic: knowing the context of your data is as important as how you visualize it. To gain an understanding of that context, you need to gather all of that information. There is something important in seeing your data, research and notes, all in one place.
1. Building up your research
My first step when I think about an idea for an infographic is to perform some boilerplate Google searches about the subject. Take the Inequality in America interactive. (You can see my notes here.) I started by running searches that were almost caveman-esque in their simplicity: “American inequality data spreadsheet download”, “America income disparity data statistics facts.” Then I expanded them with terms I came across as I reviewed those initial search results. For example, in the ‘income disparity’ search, I saw a study about ‘income distribution.’ When you do searches, as you scan the results, you might see terms that relate. Swap out these various terms and grab as much data and info as you can. Skim through and try to get an understanding of what data comes from where. A lot of times there are incredibly interesting stories hidden in boring bar charts on researcher, non-profit, or government websites. Track down their sources, review the original data and re-imagine how to point out what you think is the interesting part of the story.
2. Organizing your results
Different people have different methods of keeping track of their records. I simply take screenshots of the charts and put a link to the source at the bottom, collecting a large mass of data and charts that I can then sort through to find the best pieces. Think about it as if you were a photographer editing photos for a story: you begin by laying out every photo that doesn’t have your finger over the lens. You look at the raw materials of your story. You might even lay them all out in chronological order to see context. Then you begin to take away all the photos that are blurry, that don’t clearly show what needs to be shown. Maybe it’s data that might be relevant, but comes from a 1997 study. Or data that shows something remarkable, but it turns out it comes from a sample of 85 people. Comb through and throw these slightly-blurry shots away.
3. Making the final cut
You’ve worked your way down to photographs that are technically perfect. Crisp snapshots. Clear, beautiful data, well-sourced and well-respected, that shows something really interesting. Now comes the hardest part: you need to grit your teeth and begin to cut out even some of those amazing visualizations you were dreaming about. Maybe you’re missing two crucial years from an otherwise awesome dataset, maybe the time it would take to actually create the visualization would make you miss your deadline. You might need to cut some stuff you absolutely love and boil it down to what’s absolutely necessary. That’s how you get the clarity that earns the best infographics their well-deserved praise. Cut out everything that you can’t easily justify being there. This means that the information you do have is be strong enough to hold up the truth of your story. Telling a story you know to be true with data that does not necessarily support that story is not honest.
4. Sharing and Collaborating
You should be using tools that allow you two crucial things: sharing and collaboration. Personally, I use Evernote, and many of my colleagues use Google Docs. (Those, of course, aren’t the only options — if you use others, please tell us what they are and why you love them in the comments.) There are a lot of obvious reasons to do this work using a tool/web service that allows you to share your document live with collaborators. I often share my Evernote notes live with my editors so they can see my progress and give me feedback on the reliability of various datasets and which angles are interesting and worth pursuing. I gather everything I can, and then begin cutting and pasting charts and bringing them further to the top as I learn more about them and figure out how they fit into the story. It’s important to note that when I talk about “cutting” data, that doesn’t mean it ever leaves my notes. Maybe down the line I might find that a prized dataset I planned on using has a crucial deficiency, and I need to go back to the drawing board and use something I’d previously dismissed for a new angle. I also find it incredibly useful to have all these notes in one place, as I can write down ideas I have on my way to work, using the Evernote iPhone app. If I have an idea about a way to tell the story while I’m on the BART, I can check my notes and see if the data supports my idea, so by the time I get to work I have a visualization planned in my head and can sit down and execute it.
5. Step away from the spreadsheet; clear your head
Getting away from spreadsheets and charts is crucial in boiling down a story to what’s interesting: when you have all these rows of data in front of you, it’s tempting to want to visualize it all. But by breaking away from the screen, your brain naturally loses the details that you don’t find interesting, and you can focus on the elements that best convey your story. A clear infographic comes from clear research, so you can’t neglect organizing your data and still expect a beautiful infographic. The visualization is merely a reflection of the data, and unless you understand it, you’ll never be able to simplify and clarify it. E.J. Fox is a staff designer at Visual.ly.