An infographic (or information graphic) is a visual explanation – for example, a chart, map, or diagram – that aids in the comprehension of text-based content. The infographic designer does not merely illustrate given information, but must actively interpret given content in order to present it in a manner that effectively visually communicates to the viewer. A designer does this by progressing through a number of steps, each time further processing and refining information.
Rajamanickam (2005) identifies three steps in the design of infographics: first, the designer must clearly understand what type of information is being communicated (spatial, chronological, quantitative, or a combination of all three); second, the designer must conceive of a suitable representation for that information as a cohesive whole (a whole that is more than the sum of its constituent parts, such as charts, diagrams, maps, timelines, etc.); and third, the designer must choose an appropriate medium for presentation (static, moving, or interactive). For example, this information may be a set of instructions, e.g., how to exit a building; it may be the visual explanation of a complex verbal concept, e.g., the science of how light is reflected by a mirror; it may be the visual companion of verbal content, e.g., a map of a country displaying the distribution of votes for different candidates; or any number of other visual devices that are used to convey meaning.
One distinguishing characteristic of infographics is their attempt to communicate a specific meaning or content via the conscious, rational effort to provide an exchange of information using any number of visual techniques. There are some concepts that cannot be communicated through pictures, and others that can be said only with great and lengthy difficulty through language. But in certain situations, pictures, or a combination of pictures, words, and numbers, can speak more clearly and with a greater chance of a message being understood and remembered than solely with numbers or words. Because the images used in infographics tend to be simplified to essential or general characteristics, they tend to be universal in their interpretive qualities – they are stripped of cultural and realistic representation in favor of abstraction. This culturally neutral or universal aspect of information graphics makes them particularly effective for use in large-circulation media like newspapers, weekly news magazines, and news television, where a heterogeneous, culturally diverse public all expect to receive a shared clear and concise message.
The twentieth century saw the greatest degree of development in the evolution of information graphics. Two examples are of particular note: Otto Neurath (1882 –1945) was a pioneering innovator in the development of visual education. Neurath founded Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) in 1934 alongside illustrator Gerd Arntz (1900 –1988) and his future wife Marie Reidemeister (1898 –1959). The Isotype group promoted the use of simple pictographs to convey information. Living in Vienna after World War I, his “Vienna Method,” as it was originally called, was a way to effectively communicate social and economic information to a postwar public, many of whom were illiterate. Neurath’s rigorous methods of graphically presenting information had a profound influence on the design of statistically based information.
A second significant development was made by British engineering draftsman Henry C. Beck (1903 –1974) in 1933. Beck redesigned the London Underground railway map and in so doing simplified a complex map by eliminating all extraneous details. Focusing on the fact that a commuter’s main concern is the destination and how to get there, Beck divorced above-ground geographic information from the Underground lines, station stops, and transfer points. The map capitalizes on the fact that the system operates underground and therefore the commuters need not be burdened with faithful adherence to topography: Beck eliminated a true representation of distance between station stops and simply listed the stations as they are encountered along their respective lines. The only surface feature to be included on the revised map was the River Thames. Beck designed the map using only simple vertical, horizontal, and 45-degree lines (which ensure an uncluttered layout), color (which differentiates the lines), clear typography (which makes text easy to read), and symbols (which differentiate stations from interchanges; Rajamanickam 2005).
Other prominent infographic designers include Katsumie Masaru, whose ground-breaking abstract technique for the design of different pictograms for the athletic events of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics became part of the standard signage technique for subsequent Olympics; Otl Aicher, symbol designer for the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1976 Montreal Olympics; Nigel Holmes, former designer for the American news weekly Time Magazine, who coined the term “explanation graphics” to describe the function of his profession; Paul Mijksenaar, designer of wayfinding signage systems for airports, railway stations, and hospitals; Edward Tufte, former Yale professor and prolific writer on the subject; and Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the term “information architect” to describe his practice.
As graphic design splinters into ever-increasingly specialized forms of knowledge, information design itself is quickly becoming a leading discipline in its own right, complete with its own techniques, language, and thought processes. Infographics are one such specialized tool used by the visual communication and information designer.
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- Rajamanickam, V. (2005). Infographics seminar handout. At www.informationdesign.org/archives/003372.php#003372, accessed July 21, 2006.
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