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The rise of infographics

Infographics are a trendy topic in the business and design world right now and have become the go-to method for conveying many types of information. One of the things that interests me about the subject is that it’s being treated as a new thing. Thinking back to studying and teaching art history in grad school, I can happily report that infographics are ancient — literally. But first, let me explain why they are popular today.

Infographics are appealing to people because of the way we are wired. When processing information we generally use the left side of our brain for verbal and written cues. The right brain tackles the more visual work. The abstracted images of infographics get the right brain thinking and put the whole brain to work, making information easier to absorb. A clear, thoughtful infographic design is the best way to speak to both the left and right brain and to fully engage cognition.

Not a new concept, though. Ancient Egyptian carvings offer abundant information, with both hieroglyphs and particular iconography. Everything about the relief sculpture of the pharaoh Akhenaten and his family pictured above is loaded with information: The image has a complete narrative based in textual symbols and graphical metaphor, from the rays of the sun to the peculiar shapes of the babies. For example, by representing the young boy as a miniaturized pharaoh, the artist has used effective shorthand to deny the physiologically correct human qualities of this child and instead illustrate his godlike nature as passed down from the father. Taken as a whole, it’s essentially a 3,300 year old infographic.

In a similar vein, for centuries Chinese artists have paired painting (visual) and poetry (verbal) to engage both halves of the brain. In a sense, they are two translations of the same scene that together give the viewer a more well-rounded understanding of the subject matter. While not infographics per se, they are based on the same fundamentals of whole-brain thinking that we see in good infographic design today.

In recent years people have started to pay more attention to this pictures-and-words approach — partially because people like trends, but in large part because it works. We have less and less time to get somebody’s attention, to get our point across, to explain data that might be complicated or even boring. With the growth of the Internet we are exposed to more data than ever, so information must be presented effectively to register. A whole-brain infographic has a greater chance of having an impact than text or image alone.

Infographics have not popped up in the mainstream consciousness overnight. Since the 1980s, USA Today’s front page has featured something in the infographic family. This newspaper helped popularize infographics, which were something of a specialty before. In the last few years both The New York Times and TIME magazine have taken the concept of using graphics as a means to convey data to a new level. These publications have some incredibly talented infographic designers. Shan Carter and Amanda Cox at The New York Times are great. The Times is highly respected for this type of visual journalism, with amazing examples on display on their interactive page.

IKEA is actually another touchstone for successful infographic design. For a flat-pack furniture company to thrive, it’s essential that their products are easy to assemble. One way in which IKEA accomplishes this is with efficient, easy-to-follow graphical instructions that require no text whatsoever. One could never explain how to put together a dresser in one graphic, but by breaking that graphic up into discrete parts, it couldn’t be simpler. Like all strong infographics, these instructions maintain a clear, well-organized narrative and point of view to convey a message — in this case, how to assemble furniture. As an added bonus, IKEA gains an even broader market by eliminating language barriers along the way.

The love affair with infographics gained steam with the Internet, and they are everywhere now. Our brains are subject to so much information hitting at once that processing it all can be difficult. A strong infographic makes it that much easier to digest information — and if done right, it can make a message resonate in a sea of white noise.

Jim Confalone is cofounder, principal, creative director and production and design manager at ProPoint Graphics.

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