How to Avoid an Infographic Fail

By Jon Norris March 24th, 2014

Ah, infographics.

Over the past few years, these colorful and awkwardly tall stat-packed illustrations have become the go-to visuals for content marketers. The theory goes something like this: Take all relevant information and transfer it to a pretty chart or graphical representation, and, presto—CONTENT MARKETING.

Infographics, however, have suffered the same fate as many other marketing tools; once an explosion in popularity hits, the implosion in quality soon follows. Brands scream, “Would you like to see our latest infographic?” with alarming frequency. And that frequency has increased thanks to service tools like Infogram that take design acumen out of the equation. A quick glance at a Google Trends search shows that the popularity of infographics has increased 50 times in the last five years. The tactic became so widespread that Google’s Matt Cutts issued a rare warning against infographic abuse in 2012. And journalists now view them with the same derision as spammy press releases.

So where did this epidemic come from? The origin of the infographic outburst can roughly be traced back to data journalist David McCandless. His 2009 book Information Is Beautiful features plenty of data visualizations he calls “information designs.” Soon after, an enterprising firm shunned the standard public relations press release and combined their own research with a data visualization resembling McCandless’ work. And voilà, the data bundle become the infographic as we know it today.

Here’s how you can avoid the usual pitfalls and create infographics that actually work.

When is an infographic not an infographic?

Every infographic must have two elements: information and graphics. Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, there are occasions when these two components don’t mix—the most obvious example being a text list. Statistics and data can be molded and shaped into any number of visualizations. Lists, though, are just lists.

If you want to put an infographic together, make sure the data you’re using will actually benefit from the data visualization treatment. Will it make it more digestible and accessible to readers, or will it just end up as a pointless wall of pixelated text?

Google cannot read text in images (or, at least, doesn’t use it to influence search rankings), so by hiding text within a JPG file, you’re effectively denying any potential surge in search rankings. Your infographic about metrophiles might never be found if all the pertinent information is hidden within a huge image file, unreadable by search engine automated crawlers.

Citation needed

Infographic critics love to point to the medium’s lack of academic rigor. With no way to link to original material within infographics, those who want to cite their sources struggle to prove the accuracy of their work. Including lengthy URLs at the bottom of an infographic—now the norm—is a horribly impractical way of citing sources (and makes your content look like a badly formatted middle school history paper.) A reader would have to manually type addresses into their browser bar to check the facts. Good luck with that.

If citations came standard, infographic quality would improve overnight as the Internet machine readied to catch any inaccurate and misleading creations. Including a short, easily-typed URL at the bottom of the infographic that took readers to a central page of linked sources is currently the most efficient way to avoid accuracy issues. You could even go crazy and use a QR code! (Editor’s note: Or not.)

Can you do better?

Infographics are all about grabbing attention with interesting data and arresting visuals, but after five years, they’re really showing their age. Check out McCandless’ recent work—like this interactive data visualization on —and you’ll notice the man who started it all, whether intended or not, has moved on to better things.

The smartest brands have also left infographics behind. Simply Business, an insurance provider, put together this interactive on startup acquisitions. When you compare it to this infographic on the same topic, the winner is obvious.

Not that I want to make a habit of answering my own questions, but perhaps the best way to make sure your infographic doesn’t suck is, ultimately, to not make one in the first place.

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