Designing great information graphics
Double up the impact
If a picture tells a thousand words, we believe simple graphics can work twice as hard. Put simply, information graphics design is the secret to a successful business report, online or in print.
Increasingly popular, the information graphic has become something of an artform – and it’s crept up on us. With the sheer volume of graphs, piecharts, flow diagrams, maps and so on that we have had to tackle over the years: we’ve had to become rather good at them.
This all started when we began working for the Parliamentary Advisory Policy Connect. We produce an ongoing series of reports for the sub-groups which Policy Connect run on policy topics as diverse as Health, Education and Gas Safety to Design and Manufacturing. In each case, a different type of information graphics is needed, yet at the same time they have to be thematically the same. Not the easiest task when we’re laying out graphics as simple as a piechart one minute, and a visual explanation of the inner working of the National Health Service as a flow-diagram the next.
However, in working on these information graphics, we’ve stuck to some simple rules which have helped define how we’ve laid these out:
Even simple information graphics should be great
When we are laying out a text-heavy policy report, information graphics make a point succinctly but also break up the layout to make it more visually appealing for the reader. It’s ironic that even a simple piece of graphic like a graph actually makes a page more, not less easy to comprehend, merely by being there. But, needless to say, they have a point to make to back up the content of the report. The next step is not overdoing it with a rainbow of colours: using a limited palette and letting the data have space around it is key.
While accuracy is vital, it’s probably unlikely a reader is going to want the exact detail of the data. Rather, impact is key. In almost every case, graphs and pie charts are making a dramatic point. There aren’t too many options – it’s going to be significant growth, fatal decline or the antithesis: flatline stagnation, but each has a story to tell. We’ve no interest in making our reports look like a maths textbook, so we try and do something different where we can.
This is an basic graph explaining the rapid rise in numbers of laboratory technicians since 2004, and in particular how the trend of senior technicians had outpaced juniors. It’s just a bar chart effectively, but from a layout perspective works well. The bars are bold and clear, and the sharp arrows pointing in at the right hand side offer a small tweak to make it look a little fresh. That small graphic tic can then appear on graphics throughout a single report adding some individuality to that report.
Another good example of that individuality is this pie chart below focussing on carbon emitted by different sorts of commercial property. It may be a tough sell for the lay person looking at it for the first time, but it’s a success from our perspective. It’s clear where the emphasis lies; the white lines around the different section add clarity and avoid colour clashes; and in a scenario where exact data was important, the side panel feels very graphically fresh and interesting. That data box then went on to appear on every single different graphic throughout the report as a quick go-to for researchers seeking precise information.
The Higher Education Commission report ‘Too Good to Fail’ also required dynamic graphics and this one ended up inspiring the overall cover design which underwent a transformation from Venn Diagram to abstract geometric colourful graphic.
Making a complex point seem simple
We were commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts to design a report marking the 90th anniversary of the first Student Design Awards.
A key point the RSA wanted to make in the report was the incredible diversity of topics that had been covered over the years. Demonstrating each topic over the full span of the programme would have run over several pages. This was deemed overwhelming and potentially could have even diluted the desired impact. So we talked it through with the team preparing the report and decided to focus on the last fifteen years and show those topics which remain current (and thus be of even more interest to readers today) and had particularly gained traction with entrants.
Our core design theme for the report was an elegant hound’s tooth pattern, so it seemed a natural step to feature this in the graphic. The end result is effectively a table by any other name, yet has become a remarkably striking visual image which ended up appearing on the inside spread of the report.
In this example, for the V&A, University of Brighton and AHRC, a report about Social Design, we were given a rough, hand-drawn idea for a graphic demonstrating key themes discussed in the report, and when they had begun to gain traction in the industry.
The graphic design of this diagram ended up reminding us of the sort of thing made popular in school textbooks in the 1980s: bold, clear and simple. These clean shapes ended up inspiring us: a series of four appeared as the cover illustration and a repeating graphic throughout the report.
Defining an entire government department
One of the most successful information graphics we’ve been involved with was for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group.
At the time, the Coalition Government had brought in a controversial wide-ranging review of the National Health Service. While those in Government understood the changes, actually explaining them in a manageable, visual form to key stakeholders had never been attempted: until the challenge was presented to us. Once more these ideas appeared as a rather complicated biro annotation and Post-It note page, but the ideas were all there, and it just required a little patience to pull it all together.
The end result was useful for Government, those commissioning and contracting care, regulators and patients.
It was particularly successful at launch: we were told later that the diagram had actually been used in Government and the Civil Service to explain the changes. Very satisfying.
Stephen Dorrell MP, chair of the Health Select Committee, holding open the APHG report at our information graphic