Infographics: an analysis of 4 shows what makes one great

I've heard some say infographics have become all the rage these days. I've heard others say they think their heyday was a couple years ago.

Personally, I think the age of infographics is just beginning. They've been around for centuries, but the information age has finally catapulted them into our common vernacular.

Yet, as an infographic designer myself, I can humbly say that our generation's artists are still learning to master this nuanced art form. Not all infographics are created equal in other words. I can't help but cringe when I see how easy it is to just throw a bunch of numbers or lists into a colorful picture and still be able to elicit "wow"s from those less versed in the intricacies of this craft. And also I can't help but gasp with awe when I see just how beautiful and enlightening some of these creations can be.

So, as any good designer should, I've spent some time asking myself: what exactly makes an infographic not only good but great?

Like all communication efforts, I think that infographics can vary widely along the dual continuums of style and substance, which I pictured above and which I will explain further below. Dan Roam's "BlahBlahmeter" also provides an excellent framework for assessing the potential pitfalls of visuals meant to inform.

Low substance, low style

The example below is far from being the worst example of this, but still it takes too much time to decipher (if you can at all) - in large part because the visuals themselves don't help. In a word, it's just foggy.

High substance, low style

This is one of those graphics that I think is fairly rare in that there is a lot of information that has actually been organized into a visually understandable layout, but obviously executed by someone whose abilities are sadly limited to clip art. While I'm sure it could be simplified in content, the real weakness here is that it doesn't make what's generally considered "dry" material to begin with any more enticing to discover more about.

source:  State of Colorado

High style, low substance

I think it's fitting to include an example of a map here because these, in my opinion, are the most likely visuals to botch (for a variety of reasons). This one certainly catches the eye - but then it confuses the brain. I find this especially sad because it looks like the content is pretty important.

source: Good Magazine

source: Good Magazine

High substance, high style

True, for some this graphic's content might be a bit dense, but it is presented in a way that is simple and clear. It may appear relatively plain compared to some punchy infographics, but that just might be what allows you to be able to look at it long enough to notice just how much information it contains. For me, that makes me all the more inspired.

source: New York Times

(While we're on the subject, graphics like the one below are not infographics. This one is a list with an illustration.)