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14 Ways to Present Information Visually

Lots of information to share? Making an infographic? Here are 14 ways to visually organize your information, with examples and tips on when to use them.

There are two ways to discover the best way to go about presenting information or a story visually:

  1. Get to know your data or story intimately. Rake your zen garden, and ask yourself “what does my data want to look like?”
  2. Go through hundreds of infographics and try to see if any of the better ones are a good fit for what you want to do, or say.

For this post, I’ve tried to do the latter for you (if you want to cultivate your zen garden, I can’t do anything for you).

The process:
I went to Visual.ly (an excellent source for infographics, and the community around them) and reviewed a couple hundred of the most popular infographics by pageviews. This trawl revealed 14 visual metaphors. Here I’ll share them, and answer a few questions for each:

            When does a particular visual approach really work?

            What’s worthwhile keeping in mind, from a design perspective?

            What are a few good examples?

The 10 + 4 Visual Conceits

 

Anatomy

An anatomy visual or infographic provides an annotated exploration of the contents of a large and complicated object or idea. It can either be metaphorical (like the “Anatomy of an SEO” infographic below) or straight (like the “Anatomy of a Perfect Website” infographic below).

When do you use it? Any time you want to educate about something with many moving constituent parts, which are not widely or easily understood.

Design notes: Although our goal is to illustrate and elucidate complexity, you need to resist the temptation to get too detailed and explicit.

Some examples: SEOMoz Anatomy of a Search Marketer, Anatomy of a Perfect Website

 

Timeline

These are great to demonstrate (or create) a series of cause and effect relationships, or evolution.

When do you use it? Whenever change over time is your main point

Design notes: Do you start late and work backwards or do you start early and work forwards? Generally the latter, unless the point you’re trying to make concerns the historical roots of something. Pay attention to time scale – try to conserve gaps and bunches.

An example: Battlefield vs. Call of Duty Timeline

Timeline Sub-genres:

History of… example: History of Alarm Clocks

Evolution of…example: The Evolution of the Geek

 

Taxonomy

Like this post, we all try to classify things. Somehow bucketizing stuff puts our chimp minds at ease. It also allows you to communicate breadth AND depth.

When do you use it? If you want to clarify significant and recognizable differences between sub-groups

Design notes: Use this only if you have multiple elements that differ on many different axes (if you have only two things, you may want to use side-by-side comparison (below); if only one axis, maybe scale (below))

An example: Nuts & Bolts of Chart Types

Taxonomy Sub-genres:

Periodic Table example: The Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors, The Periodic Table of Swearing

Tree example: Eloqua Blog Tree

Map

Maps are fucking great. I love them. You can find out where you are, where you’re going and where…other stuff is. Nothing provides spatial and conceptual context quite like a map.

When do you use it? Whenever you want to communicate proximity, distance and direction between a number of different items, or data points.

Design notes: If you can pack significance into the layout of your map (that is, distances, objects and sizes all have meaning), the better it’ll be.

Some examples: Flowtown Social Networking Map, The Creative Process Map

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Chutes and ladders

You know the game – you jump forward and slide backwards seemingly by chance, always struggling from start to finish. Participants proceed through one-part design and one-part chance.

When do you use it? When you want to explain a process, wherein pretty much everyone wants to start and end at the same place (but the route from start to finish is highly variable)

Design notes: Generally there’s little debate about the steps along the way; spend your time and effort on the leaps forward and backwards, because those will draw the most attention.

An example: Credit Report 101

 

Space equals space

It’s one of the first lessons from nursery school: some things are big, other things are little (but only compared to each other). The space equals space infographic plots two or more things against each other using the same scale.

When do you use it? Whenever you want to communicate the relative size or number of disparate things, because the relationship is unexpected or interesting

Design notes: Often it’s great to set a baseline, then compare and contrast with that. Changing the baseline can be confusing.

An example: What’s Smaller Than Apple

 

Scale

Everything in the universe, no matter how unique, is on a sliding scale – we must just ask ourselves what the scale is. For example, a pink unicorn is on a sliding scale from “is a pink unicorn” to “is not a pink unicorn” where most things in the universe are towards the endpoint of the second group.

When do you use it? Anytime you want to prioritize or rank a number of objects against a criterium that your audience will particularly like

Design notes: Top-down scales will tend to make the top look good, and bottom bad; side to side rankings will not give one end of the scale preference.

Some examples: The Likability of Angry Birds, The Trustworthiness of Beards

 

Side by side comparison

We all know the basics of this visual from the classic feature table. You start by selecting a model or example on the top, then you go down the chart to see what that model does or does not have. The point of these is easy comparison.

When do you use it? Whenever you have a limited amount of items that you want to compare or contrast quickly.

Design notes: When you go down to two elements, these elements will often end up looking like they are in conflict.

An example: Geek vs. Hipster

 

Decision tree

These can be fantastic when they are straight, and these can be fantastic when they are comic. They are designed to answer every possible circumstance with an appropriate answer.

When do you use it? Decision trees are great for guiding people mentally and visually from an indeterminate starting point to any one of many different end-points.

Design notes: You will need to structure each point to have only one or two closed-ended (easy to answer) responses, end with a concrete recommendation and come to a conclusion very quickly.

Some examples: Should I accept that friend request?, Should I wear sweatpants?, Do you have to wake up yet?

 

Venn Diagram

The Venn diagram comes from the philosopher Rudolf Venn-Herschelderferer who never lost a fight; he just added another layer of complexity. In all honesty, these diagrams are about forcing people into trade-offs. You can’t have it all, have it all pure and have it altogether, ever.

When do you use it? When you want people to see that a situation has no ideal scenario, but rather a series of trade-offs and compromises.

Design notes: I’ve never seen a successful Venn diagram with more than max. four big circles. Doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but I’m just sayin’.

An example: How would you like your graphic design?

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