You’ve seen them everywhere — from classrooms to business, infographics populate our life and our media. It’s hard to go a day without seeing them on our Facebook feed or other places around the web. With easy access to infographic-making software, it’s easier than ever to create these interesting visuals, and many are taking advantage.
However, with the word being thrown around so much, one has to wonder — what exactly is an infographic? These visuals are easily confused with other forms, despite having their own unique history, design, and purpose.
Let’s start with a general definition. According to dictionary.com, an infographic is, “a visual presentation of information in the form of a chart, graph, or other image accompanied by minimal text, intended to give an easily understood overview, often of a complex subject.”
You may ask: “But how is this different from data visualizations?” According to the guide Good Charts by Harvard Business Review, there are four different types of information graphics: declarative, conceptual, exploratory and data-driven. In order to find out where a particular graphic lies, you need to ask yourself two questions:
If you answered either “conceptual” or “data-driven” to the first question and “declaring something” to the second, then you’re probably dealing with an infographic, plotted on the top half of the chart below.
If you responded data-driven to the first and “exploring something” to the second, then you’re most likely looking to create a data visualization, which is plotted on the lower-right quadrant of this chart.
This handy chart may give you a better idea of how to classify information graphics, but to really train your eye to identify each one, you may need to see a few examples. Below, we’ve provided a few real-life examples to help you identify the differences between each.
Take a look at this mesmerizing data visualization on the impact of the general theory of relativity on current physics research, a century after Einstein’s ideas first appeared on the scene. It allows users to fully interact with the information by zooming into data points and viewing it from a variety of different angles. This allows readers to go as deep — or superficially — into the data as they desire.
Charts are often used in infographics, but aren’t the same as the latter. Charts visually display a specific data set and can either be declarative or exploratory in nature.
If everything in your chart is in service of making a specific, pre-determined point, then you can be sure that it is declarative; if, however, it displays data without drawing attention to a single point so that the viewer can come to his or her own conclusions, then it is probably exploratory.
Infographics, while they might incorporate charts, use other images and words all in the service of a single point. You’d probably use charts to display a single data set, instead of trying to encompass a large section of information in one visual.
With how similar the names are, it’s easy to confuse information design with infographics. However, the two still serve distinctly different purposes. According to Dirk Knemeyer, information design doesn’t have one set definition. There are various ways to understand it, as you can see here. One such potential definition is: “The point of intersection between language disciplines, art and aesthetic disciplines, information disciplines, communication disciplines, behavior and cognition disciplines, business and law and media production technologies.”
Information design is used, specifically, to connect and integrate different disciplines. It’s not a specific class of visuals, such as infographics, as it encompasses a broad range of concepts. For example, Clare McDermott suggests using information design in the form of “callout boxes” to draw attention to a specific point.
Jaime Nacach gives an answer by explaining four uses for infographics:
Ask yourself, “What kind of information do I want to present?” If you want something eye-catching, with a lot of simplified data, an infographic is the right choice.
If infographics have evolved into a unique set of visuals, then how and where did these graphics first develop? Actually, their origins are found quite a ways in the past.
Probably the earliest pictures that could be considered “infographics” were, in fact, cave paintings. These aren’t the infographics that most people know today, but they still served a similar purpose: to put a difficult subject, such as a story or lesson, into an easily visualized and understandable format. Hieroglyphs and maps could be considered as having similar purposes.
The person most credited with the infographic we know today was Christoph Scheiner in 1626, who used infographics to track the sun’s path. He reprinted these in Rosa Ursina sive Sol, and thus a legacy was born.
Scheiner may have planted this infographic seed, but a Scottish man named William Playfair really expanded upon it. According to Clive Thompson, Playfair originally drew patents, and later realized he could apply his illustrations to economics to make the data more visually appealing.
With Playfair helming the ship, these burgeoning infographics began booming across Europe in the 19th century, with several notable examples. André-Michel Guerry was the first man to use shading to illustrate areas that had a higher density of a certain substance or subject, such as areas where crime was more common, and many followed suit with other endeavors.
In the later 19th century, Florence Nightingale used infographics to present her case to Queen Victoria — specifically, she wanted better medical care for those participating in the Crimean War.
Infographics, as it turns out, had moved from simply presenting scientific or economic data to presenting moral and political themes. These carried over to America, where “slave maps“ were used to determine where to fight in the Civil War. Essentially, darker areas meant more slaves, and therefore they were targets that should be focused on first.
Infographics were used more diversely in the 20th century. Rebecca Onion posted some early 20th century infographics from Scientific American, which focused on a variety of subjects (for example, reasons for divorce). NASA even sent infographics into space, in the form of the “Pioneer Plaques” aboard the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11.
Infographic use in the 21st century expanded to many forms of media, including television shows, video games, and newspaper articles. The onset of such programs as Adobe made creating the visuals a much less painstaking process, and paved the way for the programs and infographics of the present.
Today, infographics are still used in journalism and other media, but have expanded to other arenas, such as the classroom and content marketing.
There are quite a few ways infographics are used today, and just as many ways they can go wrong.
Emilie Flutterman gives a variety of examples of ways infographics are commonly used. For example, she mentions infographics are quite often seen as resumes, and can be used to create comparisons and recruit others to a cause.
Kathy Schrock mentions that infographics can work well as assessments, and lists a variety of resources for teachers, as well as many creative infographic examples. Her blog is worth checking out, especially if you’re a teacher interested in incorporating these concepts into your classroom. Similarly, Catlin Tucker comments on how teaching infographics gave her students useful skills, and gives several examples of their work.
With infographics appearing in classroom settings, it’s no surprise they also appear in student presentations. Many students naturally see the appeal of making their information more appealing and accessible, and it makes it a little more entertaining for them, as well.
Probably the area where infographic use has grown the most is content marketing. This infographic illustrates several reasons many want to use infographics in their marketing, from making viral content to making your subject more accessible. Joe Pulizzi lists some of the best content marketing infographics out there to give you an idea of what works best.
While you may be ready to jump right into creating infographics, there are a few things you should be wary of first. Creating a poor infographic can actually confuse others and make them disinterested in your topic instead of drawing their attention and making the data clearer.
Nayomi Chibana gives a list of 10 reasons why some infographics fall by the wayside. For example, she warns that you should approach a widely-covered subject from an alternative and original angle, or else you might lose your audience’s attention. They also warn of pitfalls such as a poor design or making the infographic too long.
Here are a few extra tips to make your infographic stand out:
With these tips in mind, you can start creating some amazing visuals.
Infographics are pretty popular now and have developed in amazing ways over the years, but what might the future hold?
Undoubtedly, infographics will continue to be used frequently by businesses, educators and the media, but there’s a good chance they’ll evolve as our technology does. Perhaps in the future, we’ll start seeing more interactive, game-like infographics, as well as 3D, immersive ones incorporated into virtual reality experiences.
Infographics are still growing and changing, so if you haven’t worked with them before, it’s a perfect time to start. You can grab our free beginner’s guide to creating shareable infographics below, and take your new, innovative ideas, and turn them into something that’ll be remembered for ages to come.
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