Make captivating charts and graphs

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If you’ve ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation or read a quarterly report, you’ve probably been bored by a chart or graph. Chances are, it was blue, red, and yellow on a gray, lined background. Maybe someone even threw in a 3-D effect to make it “pop.” You may even be guilty of creating a few of these lackluster graphics yourself.

Most people could stand to improve their informational graphic, or infographic, design skills. An infographic is a combination of words, numbers, and pictures that tells a story quickly and clearly—pie charts, bar charts, and line graphs are all examples. And despite the word graphics, you don’t need specialized programs, an art degree, or the fancy effects in office software to produce engaging infographics. Instead, follow these few design rules from top experts to produce effective infographics no matter which application you choose to work in.

Understand the Information

The best charts and graphs tell stories of growth, reduction, contrast, time, or value in a straightforward, concise way. According to Michael Murphy, the creative director of Inbound Logistics magazine, the designer’s job when creating an infographic is to figure out the main narrative and find the infor­mation’s hidden drama.

To do that, you first have to understand the data’s implications. Then you have to look at the data through the eyes of your target audience. Ask yourself, are you giving them the most important facts? And are you speaking their language? Avoid jargon unless you’re sure the terms mean the same thing to everyone in your audience.

Choose the Right Delivery Method

Bad Chart Example
This bad example of a sales chart is overwhelmed by too many fonts and text sizes, an overuse of graphics, distracting 3-D effects, poor color choices, and a cluttered background.
One of the most important decisions you’ll make when creating an infographic is the type of chart or graph to use. In general, bar charts are best for comparing amounts or showing trends over time. Diagrams or flowcharts are better when you’re illustrating processes or relationships.

Next, let the numbers help you choose the type of infographic that’s most appropriate. For example, use a bar chart only when the numbers you’re comparing are dissimilar—a row of roughly equal bars doesn’t make much of an impression. Use pie charts only when percentages equal 100 percent.

Then sketch something out on paper to ensure that your ideas, not the software, will guide your infographic. Karl Gude, the head of Michigan State University’s infographics program, suggests that you not think about the structure in terms of what looks pretty, but rather think about what’s logical.

Only after you’ve refined your paper sketches should you play around with the chart and graph templates in programs such as Adobe Illustrator ( ), Apple Numbers ( ), Microsoft Excel ( ), or Red Rock Software’s DeltaGraph ( ).

Emphasize What’s Important

Four things can help you highlight your infographic’s most important data and convey information quickly: layout, size, font, and color.

Layout Because most people look first at a page’s top left, that’s a natural place to set the stage for the rest of your chart or graph, with a headline or introductory text. It may also be a good location for an important image you want viewers to notice before other elements. As you might expect, the lower right-hand corner is a bad spot for must-see details.

Successful infographics tend to be wider than they are tall, but don’t force information into a horizontal form if it’s easier to understand in another shape.

Good Chart Example
In this improved chart, the information is easier to understand. The sole font is sans serif. The bar colors are similar shades that get more intense as the temperature gets higher. Finally, the background is free of lines, and the chart isn’t boxed in.
Size In general, the least important information should be the smallest, but don’t use too many text sizes, or your viewers will get confused. For example, you could stick to three text sizes: the headline would be the largest; any introductory text, a little smaller; and the chart text, the smallest.

Font Limit yourself to one or two type families to keep text easy to read. Sans serif typefaces (those without detail at the ends of strokes) are good for most infographics, because they tend to have larger, cleaner lines than serif fonts. Helvetica, Gill Sans, and Trebuchet MS are sans serif fonts that ship with OS X. Other choices are Franklin Gothic, Myriad, and Stone Sans.

Many of these font families contain variations; so, for example, you can use Myriad for your text and then use Myriad Bold to add oomph to a headline.

Color Color can do wonders to help important information stand out—but only if it’s used sparingly. For example, to make sure she’s using color in the most effective way, Heather Jones, the deputy art director at Best Life magazine, starts in black and white. Once she’s sure her data is clearly communicated, she then adds color in moderation to further differentiate parts of the infographic.

Avoid bold primary colors, as they can make it difficult to create emphasis with color. (Also, keep color-blind viewers in mind; many can’t distinguish between green and red.) Try adopting a relatively muted palette (such as earthy greens and yellows) or pick one color and use darker and lighter tints of it.

You should also consider all the ways that the chart or graph may be distributed. If there’s a chance that, say, it will be printed on black-and-white printers, you’re safer using only black, white, and shades of gray.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Once you have a solid draft of your infographic, step back and eye it critically. Your goal is to determine whether you’ve made any of the following mistakes:

No Focal Point If bars, pie slices, or lines in your graphic are similar sizes and colors, then there’s nothing to catch the viewer’s eye. Say you’re showing that more beach balls are sold on hot days, and the bar for each day in your graphic is gray. Change the bar representing the hottest day to red, and it instantly becomes the focal point.

Inconsistency Similar elements should look the same, in color, size, placement, and typeface. If the infographic’s visual cues are inconsistent, you risk confusing viewers.

Likewise, charts that are on the same page and use the same scale should be the same size. For instance, if you’re creating a chart that relates high temperatures to sales of sunblock, and it’ll appear on the same page as the beach-ball chart, the sizes of the overall charts and the elements within them should be consistent. That way, viewers can easily compare the information.

Too Much Stuff Get rid of any non-essential information that competes with critical information. For example, you may be using a grid to plot the heights of bars in a chart, but that doesn’t mean you need to show each grid line. And if that chart is showing growth over time, emphasize the starting point and finishing point by removing the num-
bers above each in-between bar. Editing out chart junk like this strengthens your message.

Borders Many people have an almost overwhelming urge to box in their data. Fight it, especially if your infographic also has details like axis lines, tick marks, grid lines, and text.

Empty Effects Have you noticed that these rules for effective infographic design do not encourage you to use 3-D effects, elaborate shading, reflections, or textures? That’s because you want people to focus on the information, not on meaningless bells and whistles.

An infographic has to work on a flat level first. Although dimensional graphics, perspective distortions, and fancy effects are popular now, they’re usually just chart junk. If you must use them, do so sparingly.

Terri Stone is the editor in chief of and InDesign Magazine.

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