A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Posted on: 25-05-2018 by Ruta Sapatkaite

Infographics infographic

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

If you’ve made it this far it means that a) the infographic above didn’t load on your computer/phone or b) you’re interested and want to read a bit more… I very much hope that it’s b)!

In a world of instant bite-size data about pretty much anything via your phone there are as many opinions on data visualisation and infographics as there are examples of them. However, there is one thing that people agree on – visual summaries of data are becoming increasingly important in the fast-paced information-fuelled world that we live in. Visuals can help us to process complicated topics and ideas quickly, allowing us to understand and make decisions on everything from banking to healthcare to how to make guacamole.

I think that the best way to look at this is with a few examples of information visualisation  that are so ingrained in our everyday lives that we no longer notice them:

  1. Emojis: these have become so popular in recent years that in 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary took one up as their word of the year. Being able to summarise “that makes me feel sad” into not only a single character but also a less clunky and socially acceptable way has possibly lessened the isolating effect of modern technology that is often talked about.   Emoji        
  2. IKEA instruction manual: another everyday example of images being used to simplify complicated information is the IKEA instruction manual. Although it infuriates many people all over the world it is an example of how clever visuals can simply explain to a global audience how to, for example, put together a set of bookshelves.
  3. Road signs: Kinneir and Calvert’s signage is now so ingrained in our understanding of the UK road system that it’s hard to believe that the standard was once all CAPS, fewer images and often confusing descriptions at junctions and roundabouts. The deceptively simple signs that we have now are the result of rigorous research by Kinnear and Calvert who were trying to “reduce the appearance to make the maximum sense and minimum cost.” (Calvert in Design Museum article)

 Road sign

(image source: www.sabre-roads.org.uk)

“Now for the science bit”…

I am not really going to get into the scientific side of things, but I can say that our brains process images much faster than text, and that sight accounts for the majority of our brain’s data processing power:

Bandwidth of the Senses“Bandwidth of the Senses” (source: David McCandless 2010 TED Talk)

There are many nuances to how we perceive different shapes, colours or even where something is placed on a page or screen. If there are images on the page of the same shape or colour our brains assume that they are linked. The same is true if there are shapes close together (the clearest explanation of these ‘Gestalt Principles’ that I have found is here). There have also been studies to establish which order people’s eyes dart around a page, but these vary depending on the type of content, i.e. a typical viewer would process a page or spread in a book in a “Z” pattern or “Gutenberg” pattern whereas an “F” pattern is more likely on a web page (this is an interesting article that both explains these patterns and refutes their relevance in relation to non-text based pages).

Although this information doesn’t seem that significant on its own, when taken in the context of communicating important, complex or potentially dry information it becomes that bit more relevant. There is also the significance of colours and fonts: too many and your brain says “this looks confusing, no thanks!”, but use a monochrome palette and a generic font and your brain says “boring!”. It’s worth a quick internet search to find out what your colours and fonts might be saying before attaching them to a sensitive bit of data, especially if your data visualisation is aimed at a country or culture that you are not familiar with.

Another tool that can help is framing your information into a story. We all like stories and they’re more likely to stick in your memory than a lecture. In some cases you need to be careful with this, e.g. if you need to match information to a research report, but it is often possible to add some context to the information making it more relatable and therefore more memorable.

So how does all of this theory relate to you and the message that you are trying to convey? Well, it should allow you to position your data/message in a way that ensures that the maximum number of people pay attention to and understand what you are trying to tell them. So here are the things that I always try to think of when creating an infographic:

  • Don’t be afraid of using some text if the image isn’t self-explanatory. Not everything can be summarised in an image.
  • Make sure that your colour palette and fonts are appropriate to the subject-matter and audience.
  • Use the Gestalt Principles to group information logically.
  • Don’t be tempted by over-complicated visuals. Remember that the point of the exercise is to make your information easy to understand, not just pretty!
  • If you can tell a story – do it.

Congratulations – you made it to the end of this article (or maybe you just skimmed it and looked at the graphic at the beginning!). Either way, thank you for reading and if you ever want to talk all things visual just give me a call.

Blog by Joanna Harding