Stick with what works

A lot of visual designers (of infographics or, indeed, anything else) value originality above most things. But re-purposing an iconic layout for your own purposes can often work just as well. So sometimes it’s more effective to avoid reinventing the wheel - and embrace the fact that someone else thought of a better way of laying out a certain type of visual information than you’ll ever manage to.

Like using the Periodic Table as a way of presenting the Elements of a Superhero.

Click the image to enlarge

This science-based design (from here) lays out Origin Stories, Physical Powers and Mental Powers in a clear, well-structured way that covers just about every character under the sun – and clarifies the potential for new combinations.

Superman as LsAFSISpVxVh, anyone?  

The human story behind the refugee crisis...or just facts?

What’s the point of an infographic? To provoke action? Shift attitudes? Make an emotional impact? Or that most dreaded aspiration of all: “create awareness”?

Have a look at the very clear, well designed image below (from Statista). It sums up in a single frame probably the greatest tragedy of our lifetime: people abandoning their homes and livelihoods and exposing themselves to appalling risks as a result of war.

More people than live in most large capital cities, just seeking safety.

So should this graphic be trying to capture more of the human impact? The child silhouette on the left looks rather cute, (“he’ll be fine”), and he’s there with his mum and dad and younger sibling, a typical comfortable nuclear family out for a walk. The vector graphic style looks clean, the typography is tight and well organized, the colour palette calm and neutral.

And I reckon that’s fine. This image is about clear and simple presentation of information. It’s not out to tell a story. That’s where animation comes in. So if we were to take this data and create an animated version, it would be incumbent on us to tell a story, create a mood. At that point I personally would start turning the emotional screws a little, and the whole purpose of the piece would shift.

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Size Matters: Lego Batman vs Ben Affleck

It isn’t how big you are, it’s what you do with it that counts. Batman – or movie representations thereof – is perhaps a good example of that. The Economist has done its sums and found that the current actor to fill out the BatBoots – Ben Affleck – is the tallest and broadest yet.

But as this infographics variation on the classic ‘Police Line Up’ visual shows, that’s not the only direction of travel.

Click to enlarge the infographic

His immediate predecessor, if you count the Lego Movie as being canon, was only 4cm tall. But if that had been shown to scale, it would have resulted in a much less striking visual design, with acres of pointless, empty space to fill the gap between the tips of Lego Batman’s cowl and the soles of Batfleck’s boots.

The infographics moral here? Sometimes it’s worth sacrificing strict accuracy (e.g. scale) for clarity of information conveyed. Visual soundbites have their place, so as long as it’s not driven by the intent to deceive through misrepresentation, massaging the numbers to focus the overall impact of the key message can sometimes be a valid design choice. 

A powerful case against Brexit. Or is it?

I think this is a really lovely piece of motion graphics design. The kinetic text in particular is witty and varied, the dynamism and movement, particularly in pseudo 3D, is superb, and the audio track builds the emotional impact (and Alan Johnson, unlike so many politicians, sounds like he believes in what he’s saying).

But what’s its purpose? Presumably it aims to be persuasive – to convince me of Alan Johnson’s position – and about this I’m less convinced.

I’ve watched it a few times now, maybe five or so, and I still can’t list the key arguments confidently. I think the dynamism and movement, beautiful as it is, doesn’t allow for clear chunking of the information. And the very sharp, tightly synchronized audio and kinetic text might – according to various theorists such as Richard Meyer – actually prevent me from absorbing the content. Research shows that it’s almost always better for text to summarise rather than literally replicate what’s being said.

But does that matter if the overall impact – the emotional response it elicits – is more important than key arguments? Possibly. Trouble is, I think the choice of vector style graphics, which can be so effective in infographic style, information heavy content presentation, doesn’t have a particularly emotional effect. This piece doesn’t contain much new or surprising information, as it’s basically a rather personal narrative piece. For this to make an impact on me I want to see Alan Johnson as a postman, his children, jobs…real people, not illustrations and abstractions.

Like I said, I really like this. But in my view there’s a mismatch of style and purpose.

Unexpected correlations (including external underwear)

Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple, to highlight an unexpected correlation or combination of factors. Superman and Batman are the Big Two in the superhero fraternity, but if you asked most people what they had in common, the three core shared factors highlighted here probably wouldn’t leap into the forefront of anybody’s mind.

Click to enlarge the diagram

But the simple Venn diagram above, (the original is here) spells it out nicely. And perhaps suggests an action point for a few costume designers. If only Green Lantern had a cape, the logic implies, his 2011 movie might have been less of a box-office flop. (Although the Martian Manhunter, another character at the core of the diagram, is admittedly unlikely to be heading-up a Hollywood Franchise anytime soon).

Prezient took a similar approach in terms of making simple visual connections to reach a powerful conclusion with this animation on UK food banks. As is often the case with infographics, a clear, simple design - and a strong underlying message - are all you really need.

How to get musicians really animated...

The stunning infographic below has a powerful message – assuming you spend more than a minute or two looking at it. It’s linked from this article, and is an update of the one from 2010 where David McCandless illustrated brilliantly how much – or how little – musicians were earning from streaming services. I know that professional musicians are painfully aware of how little they earn from streaming, but what about the general public? It’s one of these digital era issues that makes a new default behaviour just too easy to adopt without much thought: use uber in spite of the possible safety and payment challenges; use airbnb regardless of whether they deal with appropriated properties in occupied territories; use Spotify even if musicians can’t afford to…be musicians. I’m not making judgements here, by the way, I’m just pointing out that behaviour changes quickly if new systems make things easy and provide real value.

As an animator of infographics, this one presents an interesting challenge. I’d love to animate it, showing the big pink blobs growing, shrinking and bouncing around over time. And, goodness knows, there’s a lot of animated eye candy around. But from the point of view of developing understanding what might the effect be? Simple: it would most likely accelerate judgment at the expense of understanding. For example, YouTube and Spotify look “bad” for musicians; Beats looks better. (And if I wanted to be particularly emotionally manipulative I’d have music swelling up as the YouTube blob bursts out of the frame, as I explain in the SCAMM model here). But the article points out that “…artists will be making a lot more money in aggregate from Spotify, and if Beats' user numbers grow, its per-stream payouts will come down. So this graphic isn't proof that one service is better for artists than another, in that sense.” What I need, as a user, is the ability to jump quickly up and down the chart, iteratively examining what it’s really showing me. So this is one of those (many) occasions where lovely animated eye candy isn’t the way to go.

Superhero Infographics – when you’re not quite sure whether to kill someone… or not

Infographics can capture complex sets of data, presenting visually-based explanations of processes, trends and conceptual frameworks. But they can also be used to illustrate aesthetically-pleasing decision-making models. Such as whether to kill someone if you’re coming from the perspective of an individual like homicidal superhero Frank Castle – AKA The Punisher. (For those of you unfamiliar with the skull-daubed vigilante, writer Steven Grant describes him thusly: Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard’s philosophy further, comes even closer to describing the Punisher: ‘Since we can never hope to understand why we’re here, if there’s even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action.’)

This branching decision-tree, (click here for a larger version with full details), although designed with a subversive bias towards one particular outcome, provides an easy-on-the-eye route-map through multiple, interrelated decision points. The knock-on effects of a given judgement are immediately obvious, with the ‘circuit board’ layout allowing an easy ‘retracing of the steps’ to explore alternative avenues (should you change your mind – although, let’s face it, in Castle’s case that’s a little unlikely).

Conveying the different options (and associated consequences) in text format would inevitably be much duller, and less useable. Complexity is often more describable and emotionally proximate – and thus more manageable – when a bird’s eye view is provided.

Although in this case, the dice would definitely appear to be loaded.

Superhero Infographics – Bam! Pow! Biff!

Superheroes are an increasingly-dominant global form of mythology for young and old alike. As such, ways of presenting them – and the business/cultural context in which they are embedded – are becoming more complex and nuanced. These two infographics – both of which I like – take very different approaches, but represent important design considerations showing what can work well.

This monster takes a simple approach to the (frankly terrifying) number of Superhero movies that are swinging our way over the next 4 years. The design is nice and clear in terms of the timeline, and it takes advantage of the icon-based approach of the subject matter to keep things simple visually, avoiding the common trap of over-egging the pudding. What makes it interesting is that it’s curated and updated – it’s not the first-and-only version, it’s the latest one, adapted to keep it accurate in terms of studio release plans. Infographics as reportage, it presents an intriguing alternative to text-heavy news resources, or non-user-driven (e.g. fixed-pace) video briefings.

This one takes a different approach, with more of an underlying similarity to how Prezient approach things. Is Elon Musk the real life Tony Stark? Some of us have always had our suspicions, but this lays out the evidence in a strongly narrative way. Its compare-and-contrast layout creates some dramatic tension, presenting known facts (quite dense at points, whilst light-on-the-eye), but relating them to each other in an unexpected way – to produce a surprising but compelling conclusion. What the action point might be, I’ll leave up to you – but if you hear about Musk saving people from an exploding volcano using a suit of Space Age amour, remember – the clues were there all along.

 

 

Christmas is no excuse for ill-considered infographics!

Try googling “Christmas Infographics”.

NO DON'T!

I was kidding…You’ll be assaulted by a host (to use a Christmassy word…) of infographics that kind of sum up the best and worst of the infographics business. You’ll find out about the world’s largest and smallest gifts, how many people are hurt in accidents, favourite movies, favourite foods, most and least favourite gifts, the proportion of people who go to parties, and who do or don’t put up trees…you name it, it’s there.

Of course, we’re all trying to grab a bit of your attention (which is what I’m doing now). But seriously, do we need all this stuff? And what works?

I reckon it’s simple. The whole point of infographics is to present information in a way that’s easier to digest, and more engaging, than other media. That’s it; nothing more. So if, in producing an infographic you present information in ways that make it harder to digest and less engaging, you’re wasting your precious time, and probably a client’s budget.

So this infographic on Distractify works well. It tells a simple story with a single data set. I think the colouring could be more effective and maybe the coloured circles could reflect the proportions better, but on the whole it works, and it tells me something I need to know.

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On the other hand, take a look at this. It’s about Christmas stress. Well I developed quite a bit of Christmas stress just trying to work out what it was saying. What do those numbers mean on the map? Oh – there are two maps; I wonder why. And there’s some advice in the middle…then another map and some fairly long text labels. I’m exhausted. And worse still, I’m not better informed. This kind of multi-layered information is ideal for animated infographics, where a linear story can be constructed to string all the various chunks together. But on a single image? It ain’t going to work.

And honestly, is it necessary?

How to lie* with animated infographics: the SCAMM model

Forgive me; I used to be a corporate trainer. I enjoy acronyms and easy, bite-sized chunks that can be absorbed quickly by busy people at work. Which is why, when a client asked me last week “what’s the best way to use animated infographics to..um…bend the truth a little?”, I immediately came up with a model; an acronym.

I fully acknowledge that there are much deeper thinkers about this, and some excellent writing. Have a look at this by Randy Olson or this powerful piece by Mushon Zer-Aviv. But I like my model, simple as it is, and I’ve had good feedback on it. Of course, when I’ve time I’ll do an animation of it, but for now here’s the summary:

Scale – if it’s important, make it bigger. I’ve seen in usability trials many times how people have problems assessing relative scale on screen. So if you want to say that a drug is 3 times more powerful, animate the dot that represents it so that it’s 4-5 times larger than its comparators but label it “3x”. The emotional impact will over-ride the objective assessment. Job done.

Colour – the meaning of colour varies in different cultures, so take care. But if you’re designing for a North American or European audience, you surely know that red signifies danger, black is “bad”, green is “good”, orange is “happy”…and so on. It’s common sense. Use this. Good news that starts animating in bold red type often doesn’t feel quite so good; your competitor’s sales performance presented as the only black bar in a colourful bar chart can feel bit tarnished...

Axes – your product share is tiny, and growing slowly – let’s say, from 7% to 8%. No problem! Animate a graph showing product share doubling, carefully avoiding to label the X axis as 7%. Nobody will know…The thing is, there are axes all over a typical animated infographic, not just on formal graphs. People often don’t check where zero is, or what the maximum values are. Let them make assumptions…

Music – (this applies to sound effects as well…). I think it was Felix Mendelssohn who pointed out that music can bypass our rational barriers and thoughts. So, vaguely positive news shown over stirring orchestral strings can feel world-changing; a mildly negative piece of data carefully timed and presented over grinding electronic noise can feel catastrophic. The key is in the timing and synchronisation; pushing the story of the infographic along, and building on its emotional tone.

Motion – there is a host of little tricks you can apply to deceive your user with motion. But something I’ve seen done very effectively is to use subtle movement “into” the screen to imply weakness and distance (your competitor is “shrinking”). Similarly, you can imply discomfort through gentle oscillations (which also reduces legibility), and strength through subtle movement towards the screen. OK, it’s not “lying” as such, but it can certainly help to bend the truth.

So that’s it!

Now I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek and warn you to beware of these, and many other similar tricks. The world is awash with animated infographics many of which attempt to convey less than the truth. Take care!

* without using data that is incorrect

Integration and specialisation are the keys a powerful infographic animations

This is a really useful post about different levels of infographic development. The issues are clearly laid out, and the costs (in USD) look pretty sensible to me. And it made me think a bit more about how relatively small agencies like ours work, and how they should organise to work most effectively. I reckon there are two points:

1. Integration. It really helps to have writers, researchers, designers and animators working very closely together in the same organisation, and actually overlapping their roles. A researcher/writer with a keen interest in graphics and a designer who can write, make a really good team. Separating them out, or leaving the research up to the client, can create unnecessary inefficiencies.

2. Specialisation. The world is awash with infographics, and some of the issues that infographics attempt to deal with are highly complex. So subject specialisation can really help both the writer and the designer. Once you've worked out how to express a particularly complex concept or process once, you can do it again - and better.

To voice or not to voice: that is the question

One of the ongoing debates we have with clients is whether to use voiceovers  (v/o) in animated infographics. It’s a fundamental design decision, and one that needs to be taken right at the start of the process. It drives almost every other design decision.

So here’s a quick overview of some of the things you should think about. (btw – this isn’t a post about the subtleties of how to use combinations of multimedia. Have a look at Mayer’s work if you’re interested in this).

Why base your project on v/o?

Firstly, it’s easy. We tend to think in terms of a flow of spoken words, so producing a v/o script, particularly when working with clients, can come naturally. And as users’ attention spans gets shorter and shorter, a voice can draw them in effectively, hold their attention and, through setting an appropriate emotional tone, provide a depth and sophistication to the story and the overall experience.

Why no v/o?

Clients often shy away from v/o because of perceived cost, and this is certainly an issue. But just occasionally, having v/o makes the design process a bit easier and you can actually cut your budget, in spite of the extra costs of the v/o artist and the recording. Where costs often do spiral though is in selecting and managing your artists. I’ve had clients spend weeks select the wrong person who then takes a day to record what was supposed to take an hour.

Then there’s a bunch of more technical issues around noise (do your users have adequate speakers and can they play the infographic at work?) and accessibility (will those with hearing problems be able to use your infographic?). This kind of thing means you might have to use text on screen anyway.

Why base your project around text?

Text only animations can be more flexible and allow the designer more scope for creative exploration. Have a look at this animation (for Motherpipe) as an example. It starts with a bold statement: “the internet is free”, but then adds “people think…” which changes the meaning completely. In this animation (for Planet First) the text “green jobs” highlights the subject, then is “bumped” across the screen to become the sentence “more and more people want green jobs”. It’s simple but effective, and a v/o couldn’t do it. And of course not having a v/o means that sound effects and music can have more impact and are easier to manage.

Why not base your project around text?

Although designing a text-based animation can be more creative, it can also take a long time to build in the subtlety. Then once it’s done, apparently minor changes can have unexpected knock-on effects. In fact clients often assume that as there’s no v/o, it’s actually easier to make changes. So a simple change from something like “This works” to “We know this works well” can break a design concept, unbalance the screen and add substantial design and development time.

Our opinion? I think we’re marginally in favour of test only animations, but as in all things, we’re driven by the needs of our clients and their target audience.

Animated infographics are only really for thick people: discuss

When an academic friend of mine saw one of our animations recently (this one), he said “Yes. Very nice. But animations like that…they’re just for thick people; people who can’t read properly, study, absorb complex information…”.

I took a step back. I’ve read articles like this one, about how Powerpoint is destroying effective learning in higher education, and this, saying much the same about elearning, and broadly agreed with them. But could we, Prezient, be contributing to this dumbing down trend? Actually, I don’t think so. Here’s why not.

Concentrations spans are shrinking. I’ll start on thin ice. For better or for worse, people don’t focus on things as long as they used to. This article suggests we’re now worse than goldfish. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. In order to cope with information saturation, most people have developed a range of skills which include the ability to skim and skip text and visual cues, pick out key points and move on quickly. But often we don’t have time for this, and focus can be lost. Attractive, well-designed visual presentations can meet the need for summarized information, while maintaining concentration.

The world is increasingly complex and changes constantly. Today most people have little time for sitting quietly, researching what’s going on and forming well-founded opinions. We need short, sharp summaries that cut through the mass of communication noise, and we need them often as things change.

Multi-tasking abilities have improved exponentially. And we’re not just talking about “young” people who watch TV while playing on games consoles while mixing beats on their tablets while chatting to their friends on Instagram. We all do a lot more all at the same time. So even if we’re highly expert in skimming information, it can really help to have a stimulating visual presentation as part of our ever more complex blend of information sources.

People have different “learning styles”. I know this is slightly dodgy ground. Many authors (have a look at this post) have questioned whether learning styles mean anything at all. But it’s clear that a sizeable proportion of the population like information to be presented visually and dynamically, which is what good animated infographics do.

What do you think?

How to get a better attention span than a goldfish

This article in the Independent suggests that human beings now have a shorter attention span than goldfish.

(In fact the research shows that you’re probably skipping this sentence because that first one was about the length that we’re now able to concentrate. I’ll press on anyway.)

This kind of research is all very well, and certainly entertaining in its headline. But it’s rather gross in its assumptions. What’s clear is that for all sorts of reasons, mainly to do with how we consume information, the ability to focus on large quantities of written material has declined rapidly. But our attention span, and our ability to absorb information, is heavily determined by the media we’re presented with. Researchers like Richard Mayer have shown over many decades that if you combine media in certain ways you can retain peoples’ attention and increase absorption significantly. This is one reason why infographics have become so popular: they combine limited text and attractive graphics in ways that entice people to stick with it just a few second longer.

And we would say that wouldn’t we, because our business is producing animation which, as Mayer and countless others have shown, is a great way to keep eyeballs pointed in the right direction and brain cells humming.

But of course things change. The Independent article makes the important point that as people get accustomed to particular media or devices, they give them less time and attention. So as animators we’re going to have to keep working hard to think of new ways of combining media to produce work that is surprising, fresh and impactful.

Why it’s a great time to explain anything at all

I’m a bit bored of hearing about how the world is too complex to explain or understand. Taking this view feels like an excuse to bury one’s head in the sand, and is a concession to those would wish to deceive us through creating confusion. And believe me, deceiving through confusion is an exponentially growing tactic, particularly amongst marketers!

In many ways, those of us whose job it is to communicate simply in a complex world have never had it so good. Two factors play in our favour. Firstly, we have unprecedented access to data of all sorts. Obviously, we’re treading on sensitive ground here, and we should all be aware of the uses and abuses of data. But if you want to find out about something, you pretty much can. This kind of access to data would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Secondly, we’re better able to represent data – tell stories with it – than ever before. Obviously if you’re a data visualization specialist like Hans Rosling, you’ll have access to funds and tools that are beyond most of us. But standard desktop packages like After Effects are superb for telling stories with data (that’s what we use!) and such tools are getting cheaper and more accessible all the time. Have a look at HitFilm or Apple Motion.

In short, the barriers to explaining pretty much anything are lower than they’ve ever been. All you need is a talent for communicating…

When should you animate an infographic?

We seem to be drowning in a flood of infographics, not least because there’s quite a bit to explain. But something that often comes up in our work is the question of when to animate an infographic, and when a still image will be sufficient. So we’ve come up with some guidelines, and like all good communicators everywhere, we’ve tried to make them memorable by creating a “model” (sigh…).

Think about four things:

  1. Sequence – the viewer needs to understand one item in a sequence before attempting to grasp the next one. So presenting them all at once in a still graphic won’t work.
     
  2. Substance – the viewer needs to be presented with small parts of a large mass of information one piece at a time. Presenting the whole mass of information would be confusing…so animate!
     
  3. Surprise – time-based media, like animations, allow you to set up a situation, then surprise the viewer through contradictory or unusual information. This is really important when you’re trying to challenge assumptions and pre-conceptions.
     
  4. Sizzle – (this one could be called “sex” but that might get us into trouble). Sometimes, the information you’re communicating is perceived as not being intrinsically interesting. However hard you try to polish it up with fancy illustration and colour, the viewer’s attention isn’t going to be held. So a bit of cosmetic animation, music and sound effects might just keep them interested.

Hope this is useful!