Any Johnny SEO will tell you that solid, evergreen content is the best way to earn backlinks and drive traffic to your site.
We all know Content is King. In fact, ‘Content is King’ has become such a cliché in the industry that every time I hear it, my toes curl so hard I snap both my Achilles tendons. But just because it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it isn’t 100% true; and I’m going to tell you all about my favourite content to create: The Infographic.
You’ll find a million and one blog posts about how to make infographics, but I’m going to focus on the road less travelled and tell you exactly how NOT to make an infographic…
Chapter 1 – Gathering Data
Our story begins in 1786. King George III is on the throne, and somewhere in Scotland an engineer named William Playfair is devising a system that will rock the world (of data visualisation) to its very core. His ‘Commercial and Political Atlas’ marks the invention of The Barchart, The Line Graph, The Time Series Chart and others.
Suppose Playfair had lived in 2013, and worked for a digital marketing agency in London. If he was tasked with creating an infographic about the entire country’s economic status, where would he have looked for his data?
Well I can tell you exactly what he wouldn’t do…
He Wouldn’t Get His Facts from a Fake McDonalds Survey
In today’s modern, constantly-connected world, Playfair might have looked to the public to help him answer his questions. Crowdsourcing can be a useful way to develop any project. I was only too happy to test the water, so I faked a McDonald’s competition to get people involved, and put up posters all over West London.
Here’s a screenshot of all of the responses:
And here’s the infographic I made based on the info:
The main issue with this method is the responders are likely not to be too aware of the ins and outs of international trade. In reality there was only one responder, and they didn’t even answer properly…
When gathering data for your infographic, you’ll probably be better served using one of the internet’s dozens of dataset banks.
Here are some of my favourites:
tldr; Make sure your data is well sourced – the more info, the better the infographic
Chapter 2 – Interpreting Data
In 1857, Florence Nightingale was charged with coming up with a way to represent the causes of death of soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.
Enter, the Coxcomb Chart:
This method of visualising the data proved very effective and provided clarity in previously murky waters. The only issue is the verbose key, but she probably made this in the light of an oil lamp so we can forgive that one discrepancy.
Now, suppose Florence had been living in London in 2013 and instead of nursing wounded soldiers, she handled the marketing of a Business Negotiation Specialist. She might have thought it would be nice to create an infographic about Preparing for a Negotiation, but how would she interpret that information?
By putting myself in that role, I can tell you exactly what she wouldn’t have done:
Don’t Trust Researchers to Write Design Briefs in Order to Minimise Your Involvement and Maximise Output
A clever woman like Florence Nightingale would probably have double-checked the design notes before sending them to a designer, but in the name of science I pushed past that barrier and sent the brief to a designer anyway…
The less said, the better. Apologies to Florence Nightingale.
Tl;dr: Make sure the design will interpret the information in the simplest way. Make sure the info is easy-to-understand and easy-on-the-eye.
Chapter 3 – Use the Right People
In 1933, Harry Beck brought data visualisation into the public eye when he developed the modern map of the London Underground.
He reduced the system to a diagrammatic form and departed from the convoluted map. The lines are representative of the station’s geography, but they lay it out in a much clearer way than any other system:
There are few ways to better represent this complex transport system.
But what if Harry Beck had been a busy Content Executive in 2013, living in London. How would he have handled a design for the London Underground Map amongst infographics for 30 other clients?
Well, I can tell you with some confidence what he wouldn’t have done:
He Wouldn’t Outsource Complicated Design Work on O-Desk
We’ll never know what would have happened if Harry Beck had been lazy enough to use an online outsourcing platform and get someone in Ukraine to do his work. But we do have the next best thing…
I had thought about making this section into its own blogpost called ‘What happens when you use O-Desk to create a tube system’ but I think this says it all:
I’m not sure either. Let’s just agree it wasn’t the best course of action.
If you’re still dissenting, saying ‘infographics are far simpler so why can’t we outsource those?’ then I present Exhibit B:
TLDR; Don’t outsource your design work to people you can’t trust 100% to understand the task and get it right.
Chapter 4 – Know Your Audience
It’s 1972 in Munich, Germany. The Olympics are coming to town, and there’s a drastic need for clear and modern signage to signify each event. Luckily, Otl Aicher is on hand to deliver the now iconic not-quite-a-stick-man to tell the world which sport they’ll be watching.
I’ve heard it told – and I can’t find anything to contradict it– that this system inspired the toilet sign we use most commonly today:
But… had Otl Aicher been living in London in 2013 and working at an internet marketing company – how would he have chosen to represent the data? How would his environment have affected his design decisions?
I can tell you with some confidence what he wouldn’t have done:
He wouldn’t have asked his feminist friend to create a sign to identify men and women.
As luck would have it, I was able to carry out a hypothetical recreation. I turned to my friend and asked her to design a new toilet sign that is unlike any system currently in use. After a lengthy discussion about how there’s no way to reduce males and females to two separate things and about 6 days of waiting, I received the following in an email:
The email contained the caveat:
‘I don’t like it because it reduces people’s gender down to what genitals they have, which I don’t agree with. Also because it says men are 1 and women are zero. And it takes the gender binary issue further because you are literally encoding gender in binary. Such an offensive idea, I don’t want to be in any way linked to it’.
Unfortunately, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it can’t go back in and I’ve used the idea anyway. Mostly because it got me thinking…
First I thought ‘do my genitals really look like that?’
Second, I thought ‘In 2013, when equality and tolerance extends to sexuality and gender, is it possible to create a definitive to represent ‘All Men’ and ‘All Women’ separately? The answer is an unequivocal ‘no’. (Marissa’s article at The Society Pages is a great read about this issue)
Which led me to think finally ‘You have to know how your audience thinks. You have to understand what they want, and they have to be willing to agree with you’.
Forgetting about audience is how mistakes get made. That’s how you can create the prettiest infographic in the world, but it won’t get you any links because nobody learns anything from it.
Case in point:
TL;DR: Think about who you’re making the infographic for and who you think will share it (and why). Failure to think about this will result in non-starters.
Chapter 5: Exposure
In 1983, after years developing a structured school of thought around data visualisation, Edward Tufte published his book ‘The Visual Display of Quantitative Information’. Suddenly, the world of information design had a saviour, and his gospel was hard backed and available in all good book shops.
Initially, mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch the book. Tufte didn’t quit. He saw the value of his work and took out a second mortgage on his home to fund the self-publication and distribution of the book. It is now on the recommend reading of any decent information design course in the world. That’s a pretty exceptional amount of exposure.
Tufte, Eduard R., 2009. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Second Edition., Cheshire, Co: Graphic Press.
So… If Tufte had been working at a London design agency in 2013, and instead of a book, he was promoting, say… an infographic about how to manage a sales team… What would he do?
I can tell you what he wouldn’t do:
He wouldn’t have put it straight on his blog and just hoped it would get noticed!
I’m afraid I don’t have any clever experiments for this one. I just can’t bring myself to waste any content I produce by not promoting it.
Promotion comes in two forms:
Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon – these are the big ones to focus on (although it’s worth noting that ‘success’ on these (likes, shares, upvotes, stumbles) is essentially fool’s gold unless you can convert it. Encourage people to share your work or the most they’ll do is look at it and (at best) ‘like’ it.
This is the most important part of the process if you’re using infographics to promote your brand. Danny from NeoMam claims he spends a minimum of 8 hours outreaching each of his infographics. That’s no small endeavour. Outreaching can be mind-numbingly disappointing at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Start by interacting with your community – reply to their tweets, comment on their posts (this is your ‘in’). Then you can reach out to them as a friendly face and tell them about your new infographic. And would they like to share it? They would? You just got yourself some Backlinks.
The more people you email, the better. The law of averages tells us that if you throw enough shit some is bound to stick. That is true, but please refrain from throwing shit (metaphorically or otherwise). Be proud of your content, personalise your outreach and make sure you’re giving people something valuable.
So that is pretty much how NOT to make infographics. If I’ve missed anything out or you want to send me some fan mail or hate mail, you can get at me on Twitter or comment below.