EVERYTHING WE’VE LEARNED FROM MAKING 4,000 INFOGRAPHICS

This article originally appeared on Column Five.

With over 4,000 under our belt, we’ve learned a lot about how to make infographics in our time. (We even wrote a book about it.) It’s been almost a decade since we started, and although the publishing landscape has changed since our early days of million-view infographics on Digg, they’re still a great way for brands to build brand awareness and communicate with the world. The format has even evolved since we’ve been in the game, allowing us to create more exciting, dynamic infographics than ever.

But there are still a lot of awful infographics in the world. Some are made with good intentions, some could just use a little tweaking, and some are a straight-up nightmare. But most of those ineffective infographics could be great with the right direction.

HOW TO MAKE INFOGRAPHICS

We’ve made infographics for everyone from small startups to Fortune 100 companies. We’ve learned what works and what really throws a wrench in the infographic process, from that first brainstorm to the moment the project goes live.

We don’t want you to waste your time creating less-than-awesome content, so we’re sharing our best tips to create solid infographics, based on everything we’ve learned. Here’s our step-by-step breakdown of the process and what will help or hurt you at each stage.

THE PROCESS

In general, the infographic creation process looks like this:

The most important thing to remember is that each stage builds on the other, so you need clear communication and sign-off at each stage to move things forward and create a piece of content that works for everyone. (Basically, by the time you see your first infographic design, you aren’t looking at an entire “first draft.” The idea and copy should have been locked and edited several times by the time you get to that stage.) There should be no surprises on the back end.

START WITH STRATEGY

The process to make a successful infographic starts way before you ever come up with an idea.

People often get excited at the idea of an infographic and want to head into design immediately, but this is the number one thing that sabotages an infographic. Whenever we kick off a fresh project with a partner, we start with a meeting to confirm what the project’s goal is.

At this stage, you’re setting the groundwork for the project. Your job is to ask the right questions to identify exactly what you want to achieve.

1) WHO ARE YOU TRYING TO REACH?

If you want your infographic to succeed, knowing who you want to reach is paramount. You should be able to identify who your audience is or who your audience segments are, as well as their pain points and desires. This will help you create an infographic they actually care about.

If you haven’t already, create audience personas that include demographic and psychographic information to guide these discussions. (Try our quick exercise to build your personas in less than an hour.)

2) WHAT IS YOUR GOAL?

What are you trying to achieve with this piece of content? How does it fit into your short- and long-term marketing goals? Wanting to create an infographic because they’re “cool” is not a reason. It can actually be a huge waste of time if it’s not tied to your larger strategy.

3) IS AN INFOGRAPHIC WHAT YOU NEED TO ACHIEVE THAT GOAL?

This is a big one. Way too often we see people get excited about a certain format or trend and go all in. Sometimes they want to create something because a competitor did. Other times they just want to appease a higher-up who wants what they want because they want it. Over and over, we remind people that format should be determined by the story you’re telling. An infographic may absolutely be the right format, but a GIF series, interactive infographic, motion graphic, or video might be the better solution.

4) HOW ARE YOU GOING TO DETERMINE SUCCESS?

Your KPIs will tell you whether or not your infographic worked; they should not be an afterthought. If you need tracking links or analytics set up, these are all things that should be locked down before you go into production.

Other things to consider:

  • Who needs to weigh in on the content created? Too many cooks in the kitchen or a major edit right before publication is a pain in the ass.  
  • Who will own the project? Decide who will consolidate edits from stakeholders, who will coordinate with design and PR, who will make sure that what’s created aligns with the project goal, and who will problem-solve along the way.
  • Where is this going to live? In our early years, we were always shocked to deliver a slick infographic, then find out our partner doesn’t even have a blog to post it on. Knowing where this is going to be displayed will also influence design. Don’t surprise anyone down the line.

Once your team understands the project goals, only then can you move into the fun part: coming up with awesome ideas.

FIND THE RIGHT IDEA

Too many brands try to make infographics for themselves—not for the people they’re trying to reach. Great ideas are only great if they work for the core audience. It’s easy to get hyped up on a fun or interesting idea, but it will ultimately fail if you forget who you’re creating it for.

STEP 1: BRAINSTORM

Bring the right stakeholders together at this stage, including your copywriter, art director or designer, and PR. PR is particularly important, as they know what publishers and influencers are interested in. They can also help facilitate co-partnerships, which is a strategy that we love to use. (Read more about how to approach publications for this type of content.)

Brainstorms can be tricky when you have a lot of stakeholders (or egos) in the room. Remind your team what the ultimate goal is to keep discussions on track. Something that helped us tremendously was learning about the 4 different types of creative brains. (Understanding what type of thinker you are and how to better communicate with others will save your sanity.) You can also try these 16 methods for coming up with great infographic ideas.

STEP 2: VET YOUR IDEAS

A freestyle brainstorm sounds fun, but you’re here to achieve a goal. Vet every idea to make sure it really will capture people’s interest.

  • Does this solve a problem, expand their knowledge, or have a practical application?
  • Is it relevant to them?
  • Would they want to share it?
  • Has this been done already? Can you do it better or give it your own spin?

STEP 3: WRITE A CREATIVE BRIEF

This document keeps everyone on the same page and outlines everything anyone working on the project needs to know. If you don’t have that information available, you might end up with an infographic optimized for web publication that was supposed to be an enormous visual for a tradeshow presentation (not that that’s ever happened to us—multiple times).

If you need a little help there, follow our guide to writing creative briefs your team can actually use.

Also, we find that there can be some confusion when talking about infographic creation. Before you head into production, make sure your team is all on the same page with the same language. A few terms to know:

  • Data visualization: Strict visualizations of data, which include charts and graphs.
  • Infographic: A graphic combining copy and data visualization.
  • Information design: A graphic that visually displays information but not necessarily data (e.g., a flow chart).
  • Interactive infographic: Web-based content that users can interact with and/or manipulate.
  • Animated infographic: An infographic that features animation (aka movement). It’s sometimes called a GIFographic.

TELL YOUR STORY

A lot of people think infographics are eye-catching and therefore effective, but that’s way off. A well-crafted infographic is effective because it tells a story. Combined, the text and visuals make that story easier to understand. Your words are the backbone; design enhances your words. The stronger your story, the better your infographic.

Dig into your data: Data storytelling is a powerful way to communicate, but only if you have a strong data set that actually has a story. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Proprietary data is gold: Your own data is one of the best sources for unique, original stories. Look at internal data, including research, studies, surveys, reports, etc. Here are 9 places to look for great data.
  • A statistic is not data storytelling: Just adding a single stat to your infographic doesn’t mean you’re doing data right. A great data story extracts meaning and insight from a data set. Try these 5 tips to find stories in your data if you’re stuck.
  • Data can be manipulated, misinterpreted, or misrepresented: You should always use a credible, non-biased source for data. Follow these 5 tips for sourcing infographics to stay legit.
  • Provide context and insight: When you do have a strong story (ideally from a single, solid data set), provide context and insight to guide your reader through the content. BTW, please don’t stuff your infographic with every single data point just because you can.

Tell a single story: We’ve all encountered monster infographics that never seem to end. It’s tempting to cram as much as you can into your story, but an infographic is effective when it tells a strong and straightforward story that brings more clarity to a topic. If you have multiple angles or aspects of a story, it may be better told through a series of infographics.

Here’s a good litmus test: Is it easy to write the headline for this story? Can you summarize your message in a few sentences (or a PR pitch)? If you have trouble writing your story succinctly, people will have trouble understanding it.

For more help, find out how to craft a strong infographic narrative.

Structure content in a logical hierarchy: Good design starts with copy. The better you structure your content, the easier it is for users follow the story and the easier it is for designers to lay it out intuitively.

Write to your reader: You should be telling a story they want to hear—and telling it in their language. Write to their level of understanding, explain terms that may be unfamiliar, and, dear god, avoid buzzwords.

Channel your brand voice: Your brand is made up of humans. Your brand voice should be human, too. No one likes corporate speak or dry language. Always give your content a second edit for tone and word choice. Here are a few more ways to take the BS out of your content.

Don’t get too clever: Sometimes marketers get excited about a certain story concept or metaphor, but if it doesn’t fit the story, it will do more damage than good. (Would a beauty brand campaign be about “scoring a homerun”? Probably not.) The same goes for headers. Be careful with puns. People want to know what the infographic is about—not decipher some obscure reference.

Kill redundancies: Be as succinct as possible. Context is important, but there’s no need to over explain. Design is there to do the heavy lifting and bring elements to life, so let it do its job. If a graph shows a 50% increase, the body copy, subhead, and callout do not need to reiterate the 50% increase.

Watch your wordcount: Infographics are not term papers or opportunities to prove to the world that you went to grad school. In fact, they require much less text than you’d expect. Condense and cut as much as you can. This allows more breathing room for design and helps you keep your story tight.

Edit and approve: Save yourself headaches and make sure everyone signs off on copy before you go into design.

DESIGN A GREAT INFOGRAPHIC

Great infographic design is meant to enhance the copy, increase comprehension, and make the content as visually appealing as possible.

The number one question to ask when designing: Does this serve the story?

Know your specs: Are you designing for print? Social? Web? Mobile? Responsive? What’s your resolution? This is relevant not just for practical reasons but to help achieve your goal. If the goal is to increase FB followers, the infographic better be optimized for social.

Read the content before you design: It’s an obvious one, but it’s important. You need to know what you’re really trying to express and you need to double-check that all copy is there.

Design data according to best practices: Good data design doesn’t just depict data; it uses design to enhance comprehension and bring clarity to complicated subjects or concepts. The design elements and copy should work symbiotically to tell a cohesive story—rather than design just reiterating what the copy already communicates. To make sure your data visualization is on point, read up on best practices and find out how to design the most common charts and graphs.

Follow your visual language: Every brand needs a visual language. Imagery, photography, and iconography are all tools to communicate your brand story. That said, follow your brand guidelines! If your brand is all about minimal line drawings, a brightly colored photo-based infographic is a fail. For more on that, find out what 4 things your brand style guide needs.

Be consistent: Six different typefaces and sizes or 2D and 3D illustration combined in one infographic—these are the eyesores to avoid. Again, your brand’s visual language will likely have guidelines for these things, but keep an eye out for consistency. You should also avoid these 8 design mistakes in your visual content.

Experiment when you can: Not all infographics have to be static illustrations. If your visual language allows, you can try working with papercraft, photography, or motion. For example, we turned our infographic about the trends for the future of infographics into an animated infographic for INC, which helped us tell the story in an even more exciting way.

Solicit useful design feedback: Ask the team to tell you what they think is working and what is not working instead of what they like and don’t like.

Proof the infographic: Before you send your infographic into the world, triple check that the copy is clean and the design is on point.

  • Is all copy there?
  • Are there typos?
  • Does it have a logical flow?
  • Is everything aligned?
  • Are data visualizations accurate and best represented?
  • Is the resolution correct?

Nothing’s more embarrassing than a major error. (Let’s not forget the Fox News pie chart that totaled 193%.)

DISTRIBUTE YOUR INFOGRAPHIC

Writing a great story and designing a stellar infographic are only half the battle. Getting eyeballs on your work is what will help you ultimately succeed. To help your team distribute the infographic effectively, there are a few extra steps.

Optimize your infographic for SEO: Make sure you have the right file names and keywords to get the most SEO traffic. For a full rundown of everything you need to do, follow our guides to optimize your infographic for SEO and optimize your blog for infographic publishing.

Create shareable assets: Coordinate with your design team to get assets for your channels. Make sure you have the right resolution, file formats, and sizes, whether it’s going out via email, blog, or social. Breaking up an infographic into different assets is a great way to get more mileage from the content. You can read more about how to do that with a divisible content strategy.

Craft a compelling pitch: If you’re trying to get coverage (and you should be), you need a pitch that explains why your infographic is interesting and relevant to their readers.

  • Use an attention-grabbing subject line: Journalists and influencers get a ton of email. Give them a reason to read yours.
  • Keep your pitch personal and brief: Put the story front and center.
  • Highlight key takeaways: Include a brief overview, as well as a few bullet-points or “tweetable” stats so the journalist doesn’t have to dig for them.
  • Include multiple story angles: Pitch stories that will best align with their readers. If appropriate, offer to write a sample post for your infographic if the journalist is strapped for time.

We hope these tips help you create better infographics and think more critically about your current process. Things are always changing in the marketing world, and even some of these tips may be outdated in a few years, but we’ll do our best to share everything we learn. If you have some of your own tips, send them our way.

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