When I was a senior in college, I thought it would be fun to take a painting class. Before that, I hadn’t painted anything since I was 12, at a birthday party at one of those art studios where you have to wait a month before you can get your work back.
Despite my inexperience, I thought the class would be a breeze. I’d put the brush to canvas, paint a couple beach scenes, hang one in my apartment, and feel creative and accomplished by the end of the semester.
But I soon discovered that painting—painting well, that is—wasn’t nearly as easy as I imagined. Week after week, we’d hang up our art for the professor to critique, and each week, he would stop at mine and say, “I know who did this one,” before moving on.
It was a humbling experience that taught me a valuable lesson: Just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. Just ask my sad interpretation of Warhol’s Marilyn, who will tell you through her lopsided mouth that getting halfway there means you’re not there at all.
Sometimes it seems like brands and publishers approach infographics the same way I approached painting—and readers are moving on just like my professor.
What an infographic should do is pretty straightforward; it’s right in the name. It is a graphic that—get ready—displays information. But while its function is simple, executing a great one is deceptively difficult. A well-made infographic tells an in-depth story that elicits an emotional response the same way a well-written article would.
Let me be clear here: Putting a number in a large font with a pretty illustration next to it is not an infographic. At the very least, it’s not a good one.
If you want it done right, it’s probably best to work with a visual journalist—someone who can tell a story, knows how to present data in an interesting way, and is willing to do the research the same way a writer or reporter would. You can also pair a journalist with a graphic designer, combining both of their skills to create compelling content. (After all, even Warhol needed Basquiat every once in a while.)
Here are some elements that smart, shareable infographics should all have.
A clear angle
If you can’t sum up your project in one sentence, rethink what you’re doing. If you know exactly the conclusion you’re trying to make, it will stop you from putting a bunch of random stats and charts together. Once you know what the angle is, find a way to make it stand out.
Case in point: an infographic from Gates Notes, Bill Gates’s blog, titled “World’s Deadliest Animals.” Mosquitos are awful and kill way more people than sharks, which you can very clearly see by the giant deadly red zone at the bottom.
To stand apart from the crowd, good infographics show reputable data in a clear way and put information in a broader context that doesn’t distort the original statistics. The key here is not to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of visual appeal or unsubstantiated claims.
It’s easy to fool people with charts and images to tell the story you want. Don’t do it; don’t let your infographic artists do it. And know how to call bullshit when you see it from other brands, organizations, or political campaigns.
People don’t want to read an article inside an infographic; they want a clear way to take in complex information. For a great example of that, check out “The Science Behind the Most Popular Infographics,” produced by Siege Media, which offers up clear, useful data points about the 1,000 infographics that had the most social shares over the last year.
Don’t just throw information at the reader; take her on a journey. Know your audience, know your angle, and walk them through how you got there. Nature, for example, brilliantly explained why landing on a comet is so damn hard in the infographic “Landing on a Comet: A Step-by-Step Guide to Perilous Descent,” which you can see and download as a PDF here.
Oh, and don’t forget your logo
After all, if it’s good, it’s going to be shared. Hopefully, when your audience says, “I know who did this one,” it turns out better than my painting.